Mike Davis: “Designers are fundamentally optimistic people”

Designers are fundamentally optimistic people. We have to be. We’re trained to imagine things that don’t exist yet and to describe them in terms that are so compelling that other people can also see what we’re imagining. So, the light at the end of the tunnel for me is comprised of all the upsides and […]

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Designers are fundamentally optimistic people. We have to be. We’re trained to imagine things that don’t exist yet and to describe them in terms that are so compelling that other people can also see what we’re imagining. So, the light at the end of the tunnel for me is comprised of all the upsides and positive outcomes that this crisis will bring about

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Davis.

Mike is President of Bergmeyer, a multi-disciplinary design collaborative with offices in Boston and Los Angeles. An architect and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and deeply involved in the AIA’s government advocacy work, Mike has been a key influencer in the AIA’s shift to making the fight against climate change its primary focus. He has also used his organizational leadership skills to help Bergmeyer rapidly evolve and sustain its strategic growth despite the year’s many unforeseen challenges.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was in junior high. I was in the Boy Scouts at the time, and after reading the merit badge handbook cover to cover, I went after the architecture badge first. I was also a cartoonist for my high school newspaper and the bass player in a garage band, so my father was supportive of my career choice: he was relieved that I didn’t want to be an artist or a musician. But in retrospect, my real passion has always been organizations and creative human systems. I was always taking comparative governments and political science electives through college and grad school but not sure how any of that would fit in with the rest of my career path. Once I was licensed and working, I joined the government affairs committee of my local AIA chapter and was hooked. I discovered how advocacy would allow me to maximize my personal contribution to the greater good.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Just one? That’s really hard. Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and Natural Capital by Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken changed the world for architects, giving sustainable design the objective, factual context that we could really work with. But the intellectual basis for my world view is Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. I’m pretty DIY when it comes to business and had zero interest in management books until I read this one. It’s the handbook for “systems thinking.” Chapter 18, “A Leader’s New Work,” is everything you need to know about what I do for a living. The chapter includes a section titled “Leader as Designer” that — when I read it in the early ‘90’s — lit my fuse like nothing else. It helped me to see that the organizations I have been involved with throughout my life were equally as important as any of my design projects. In fact, organizations ARE design projects — very important ones, too.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons to Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Designers are fundamentally optimistic people. We have to be. We’re trained to imagine things that don’t exist yet and to describe them in terms that are so compelling that other people can also see what we’re imagining. So, the light at the end of the tunnel for me is comprised of all the upsides and positive outcomes that this crisis will bring about. Like these:

  • Objective, factual scientific data will lead us out of this pandemic. In the process, our culture is re-establishing its trust in science. With this, I believe we’ll be able to approach the challenge of climate change with universal confidence in the science and conviction about what we can accomplish.
  • I am very sure that we will come to see ourselves as one race — the human race — sharing one planet. Our interdependence and interconnectedness will be seen as facts, not opinions. Although mitigating the impacts of globalization will still be important, isolationism will waste no more of our energies.
  • We hear the old phrase “we’re all Keynesians now” being used again. I take that to mean that we see a renewed appreciation for the unique power — and obligation — that government must protect the health and well-being of people. The government has always had the ability to be a force for good. We’re seeing it now in real-time.
  • In hard times, the prime mission of business leadership is communication — with employees, with customers, with the public. Since design is fundamentally a communication discipline, designers already get this. Therefore, I am very optimistic that creative industries like ours are well-prepared to survive these turbulent times and bounce back with great success.
  • Empathy, transparency, mutual respect, a social compact that transcends the business plan, and — above all — trust . . . these characteristics are a businesses’ sine qua non. In the post-COVID business world, these transcendent characteristics will be more than nice things to have; they will DEFINE an organization. People will evaluate each business based on how they behaved in the darkest times, and they will put their trust in businesses that stayed true to their beliefs, that delivered on their promises, that lived their principles.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Not surprisingly, the personal traits that make people good designers can also make us good friends and neighbors. As much of our work involves understanding the needs and values of our clients, we can be sympathetic and open-minded in our personal lives, too. These lessons from our design approach also work when someone needs our support:

  • Be a good listener. Listen first, and listen deeply: without judging, without rushing to conclusions, without offering solutions.
  • Be patient and generous with your time. Designers are very tolerant of process and know that sometimes things just need to unfold before them.
  • Be empathic. Empathy is the key to good design. Understanding what other people are experiencing and how other people see the world informs everything we do.
  • Be trusting. Trust facilitates beneficial human interaction. Extend as much trust to other people as you possibly can.
  • Be aspirational. Ask yourself: How can I use my personal talents to do the greatest good? What is it that I can do that the world needs the most?

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

A lot of anxiety comes from not knowing, from uncertainty, from helplessness. When I must make difficult choices in the face of great uncertainty, one piece of advice always works for me: think analytically. There are many variables in the world; many of them are beyond my control. So, I ask myself: What variables ARE within my power to control? When I identify the variable that I can manage and make a plan to manage them, I feel less anxious. When I see the variables respond to the plan I have created, I feel order returning. It’s very comforting.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

There’s a quote inside my notebook front cover. It’s Max De Pree, former CEO of the office furniture company Herman Miller, from his 1987 book Leadership is an Art: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.”

The leader-as-servant idea is a familiar one, but I don’t know that it’s so commonly practiced. I was elected President of my local professional society chapter, the Boston Society of Architects, in 2013. Being BSA President is a high one-year honor that doesn’t necessarily come with a lot of obligation. I had an ambitious agenda as BSA President, but then, in April 2013, three people were killed, and hundreds injured in the Boston Marathon bombings. The BSA membership rose as one to offer our services to the people whose mobility had been severely impaired by designing accessibility modifications for their homes. Architects in our city became leaders by serving others. That lesson has stayed with me to this day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t need to start a movement. The movement the word needs already exists. It’s called the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adopted by all UN Member states in 2015, it is “an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership.” The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) recognize that “ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests”. No further ideas are needed, just actions.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelrdavisfaia/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mikedavisfaia/

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