An Eye Towards the Future with Rebecca Ryan

Futurist and Economist Rebecca Ryan was recently the keynote speaker for our companywide “Design Day” presentation during Spirit Week in celebration of our 50th Anniversary.

Strategic thinking and future flexibility are in Ware Malcomb’s DNA. Since the firm’s founding, one of our core business principles has always been providing design services with long term real estate value – which in essence – is futureproofing. Ryan’s engaging presentation challenged us to push the boundaries of innovation and design, two core values of the company.

Ryan’s presentation magnified the definition of time. It circulated around the theory of cathedral thinking and the concept of timeliness vs. timelessness, as well as the McKinsey’s Three Horizons Model.

Cathedral thinking is defined as the planning of projects beyond the human lifetime. In the presentation, Ryan asked us to identify things that we consider timely vs. things that we consider timeless. Among the responses for things that are timely included: deadlines, stress, war, COVID-19, among others. Among things listed as timeless: love, nature, gravity, kindness, creativity, etc. In design, the goal is to create something in response to timely circumstances, such as climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic, in a manner that will be timeless and last for future generations.

Below is a photo Ryan took of seven Tesla charging stations in rural Iowa, showing that even the most remote areas are in a period of transition into an electric vehicle boom. The thought is that with world affairs, including rising gas prices and climate change, the world is in a transition away from gas and towards electric and hybrid vehicles. The station is designed in a future-focused way projecting what the world will be in years and decades to come.

Ryan shared another example in a photo she took of a Zoom Care center (left). With a rapidly increasing boom in remote and delivery services, healthcare is also in a transition period and adapting to a more innovative thought process.

Ryan’s presentation taught us that the future is always abundantly present, and the decisions we make ultimately determine how that future plays out for ourselves and generations to follow. Design ideology plays a big role in how that future is shaped, and the repercussions that follow.


Ryan brought up Charles Landry’s The Art of City Building, which explains “yes” places and “no” places. “Yes” places are designed in a future-focused way that allows multi-use, a mix of people and serves clear, uninterrupted purposes. “No” places are described as square pegs in round holes, such as gleaming metal seats placed directly in sunlight. The seats serve a purpose as something to sit on but can get so hot that it can only function a portion of the time. Future-focused design should always be conceptualized to serve the natural world and the people in it.

McKinsey’s Three Horizon’s Model, which was discussed in length during the presentation, showed us that people must plan for the future to create a sustainable environment. It’s the idea that “you reap what you sow.” Horizon one in the model (below) is described as something that is becoming obsolete but still trying to maintain itself, often the status quo. On the opposite end of the spectrum is horizon three, which is described as something that is trying to emerge. It is the vision of the future that we are trying to achieve. The model shows that the first horizon must become almost obsolete before the third horizon, and ultimate transformation of thought, design, etc. can be fully ingratiated. But what is the second horizon that gets us to that point? That, according to Ryan, is defined as the “messy middle,” the navigation between what was and what is becoming. The messy middle plays a major key in innovation. In design, innovation is key to timelessness.

Our firm has always been focused on future-proofing design, envisioning what the next trends will be and pushing the boundaries of design to anticipate future market needs. Our company-wide WM Future Lab initiatives are developing initiatives in support of that objective. Our goal is to develop and adapt future technology and processes into everything we do. We’ll have some exciting updates about these initiatives later this year.