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The DMV

The true melting pot of California might not be the metro centers of its cities. I believe it’s the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

I’m a new resident. Everyone coming into the state, transferring title on a vehicle, or required to renew a license in person has to come to a few offices. My city, San Diego, only has a few despite being the third largest city in the state and one of America’s top 20 metro areas.

You see everyone at the DMV. Everyone. It’s not like your neighborhood or the grocery store or the freeway where most people are behind tinted windows or even the voting precinct that is limited to a geography. Your fellow citizens are right there in line or in a chair inches away. Here are some observations about the most populous, and arguably legendary, state in the Union.

It’s really diverse here. Really diverse. As an old white guy I stood out as different, a distinct minority. Latino, Asian derivations, Eastern Europeans, blended races of all varieties are the heritage of my neighbors. I heard at least 8 different, distinct languages during my hour and a half in the maze.

Everyone is polite and personable. Although there are obviously language differences we all were able to make ourselves understood. The situations were great levelers of class distinctions. I think of myself as a middle class American. I was standing in one line between what I perceived to be a very well-off Latino mother and her teen-aged son and a woman I believe was a Bosnian-American who spoke broken English. We were all enchanted by the DMV employee who was thoughtfully giving people second, third, and fourth chances to get a better driver’s license photo. We chatted, smiled, and joked while we waited. Coming into the maze at the beginning of my visit several people pointed me in the right direction.

Everyone is patient. This is bureaucracy at it’s finest. Forms, fill-ins, obscure instructions, confusing lines and groups, piles of paper, opaque procedures. I didn’t hear a cross word. The patrons handled advice in many instances because the workforce is overwhelmed.

As I waited for my test results and temporary license I wandered the facility, observed the patience, politeness, and personal interactions. And I couldn’t help thinking that it would be preferable if our nation’s governance could work together as effectively as this melting pot of strangers in a strange place.

The Future Is Where You Find It - Late 2011 Sessions

At the end of another year – my 25th as a futurist – it’s interesting to look back at recent projects for some perspective and observations. My work takes me to a wide range of locations and there’s always an interesting twist to the proceedings.

Parked in between the strategy sessions that form an increasing share of my practice were some intriguing groups and industry situations.

I worked extensively for the Institute for Management Studies this year. IMS is one of my most loyal clients and I’ve been on their faculty for over 17 years. I teach a full day seminar on anticipatory habits, foresight practices, strategic thinking, and informed decision-making. Typically there are executives from a stimulating mix of companies that come together for an interactive day of observations, discussions, debate, and what I think are some excellent case studies. Boston was my final region of the year and my host Bill Brottmiller had attracted top notch people from everything from shoe manufacturing (New Balance) to insurance (Amica and others) to sound equipment (Bose) as well as healthcare, government, and banking.

This group applied the section I teach on “Seeing Around Corners” in some intriguing ways to identify early signals of consumer behavior, an innovation-resurgent America, and some of the next major risks in the insurance field. It was a superb day. That night I sat next to a venture capital guy in the energy field who regaled me with things I’d never known about how to store wind and solar power for use in high-demand periods.

I spent December working largely with agriculture. Funny how that happens a lot when the land is fallow and snow blankets the Breadbasket. I’d never worked with the aerial application side of ag before but I keynoted a conference where I looked, among a range of developments, at the substantial penetration of automation into the field. I’ve long held that jobs that are “dirty, dangerous, or dull” have the highest payoff from robots and automation. The barnstorming background of crop dusters is long gone and is now being replaced in odd corners of the world by small flying robots that could be the safer, more efficient future of that industry.

Earlier in the year I was with a roomful of Washington state mayors. I worked on a long term consulting assignment with the National League of Cities and their Advisory Council which is charged with identifying the emerging trends that will affect America’s towns and cities. This leads to a fair amount of work in the municipal space.

I had an interesting side conversation with Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn. When I asked one of my typical futurist questions, “What’s surprised you this past year?” He had a quick comeback. “Food trucks and medical marijuana!” Of course they weren’t connected. Municipalities walk a tightrope in uncertain funding times if they allow any form of “semi-legal” drug use that’s not permitted under Federal law. I won’t say more. But the food trucks comment related to something very interesting: the movement of some of America’s most talented and adventurous chefs out of the restaurant establishment and onto the streets.

Now the cognoscenti among foodies are passing around social media hints, tips, and raves on where to get the best mobile food in America. Many chefs are experimenting, reinventing, and testing recipes from a few burners or an oven inside of a moving kitchen. “Meet-ups” and tweet-enabled magnets of inexpensive, gourmet-quality eats are popping up all over America and McGinn said his city is trying to stay ahead of the massive burgeoning of the trend in Seattle. The future is where you find it.