Bran Ferren’s life pivoted on a trip to Rome at age 9. He’s the son of two passionate abstract expressionist artists, who taught him that art wasn’t just decorative but about communicating ideas, and the grandson of a cabinet-making factory owner, who often took him on field trips to buy electronics to take a apart and reassemble. So Ferren didn’t have high expectations when his family visited the Pantheon.
“From the outside, it didn’t look particularly interesting,” Ferren, the former president of R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering and the co-founder of Applied Minds, says on the TED2014 stage. “But when we walked inside, I was immediately struck by three things. It was pleasantly cool, despite the oppressive heat outside. It was very dark. And the only source of light was a big open hole in ceiling, called the oculus … As we walked to the center of the room, I looked up at the heavens through the oculus. It was the first church I’d been in that provided an unrestricted view between god and man. Something about this place just felt special.”
“When was this built?” Ferren asked his father, assuming that at least its incredible dome must have been a modern creation.
He was shocked when his father answered, “About 2,000 years ago.” That moment, he says, changed everything.
“For the first time I realized people were smart 2,000 years ago,” says Ferren. “Contrary to what I’d been taught in school, I realized that the worlds of art and design were not incompatible with science and technology. My teachers told me I had to get serious and focus on one or another, but I decided to look to polymaths like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin, who did the opposite.”
Ferren is still blown away by the marvel of the Pantheon. “It survived gravity, barbarians, looters, developers and the ravages of time,” he says. “No amount of brute force gets you the dome of the Pantheon. It is still the largest unreinforced dome that’s ever been built. To build the Pantheon took some miracles and, by that, I mean things that are technically barely possible, very high risk and might not actually be accomplishable at that moment in time.”
The building of the Pantheon required five miracles, says Ferren:
- The Romans had to invent super-strong concrete to allow for construction.
- They had to be able to vary the density of the concrete, using five rings of coffers diminishing in size.
- They had to create the natural convection of air.
- They had to recognize that light was a substance and could be designed.
- They had to understand the Venturi effect.
Creating something like the Pantheon takes unthinkable creative vision, says Ferren. “It is my belief that to create these rare game-changers requires you to pull off at least five miracles. No matter how talented, rich or smart you are, you only get one miracle,” he says. “Rare visionaries have the ability to notice when others have provided enough of the miracles to bring the goal within reach.”
This leads Ferren to wonder: What are the Pantheons of our time? “Putting a man on the moon was a good one, and returning them safely to Earth wasn’t bad either,” he says. But the most obvious answer doesn’t quite meet the criteria.
“One is tempted to say today’s Pantheon is the Internet. But I actually think that’s quite wrong,” says Ferren. “The internet is not the Pantheon, it’s more like the invention of concrete. Important and absolutely necessary to build the Pantheon, but entirely insufficient itself.” It’s the physical things that people will create with the Internet that will matter, he says.
Instead, Ferren looks to an idea from “the late 1930s that’s been revived every decade since”: autonomous vehicles. This will be the game-changer, Ferren predicts. “Much of our world is designed around roads and transportation—this was as essential in Rome as it is today,” he says. “This will be the key technology to allow us to redesign our cities and by extension human civilization.”
Autonomous vehicles will not only save lives—10,000 in the United States per year and a million globally. It will clear road congestion, and give us back valuable time that today is wasted. And autonomous cars will cut pollution in half, Ferren says. Getting there will take five miracles, some of which are already here:
- You need to be able to know exactly where you are and exactly what time it is. (Thanks GPS.)
- You need to know where all roads are and what the rules of driving on them are. (Check, in-car navigation systems.)
- You need near-continuous communications with other vehicles nearby. (Ferren says that current wireless technology, with modifications, could get us there.)
- You need restricted roadways that people agree are safe to use. (We could start with HOV lanes.)
- And you need the ability for machines to recognize people, signs and symbols. (For this a car might need to wake up to ask its passenger a question, the answer of which it could then share with all other vehicles.)
“I predict that autonomous vehicles will permanently change our world over the next several decades,” says Ferren. “The beginning is only a few years away.”
But even more advances could be just around the corner.
“The ingredients for the next Pantheons are all around us, waiting for visionary people with multidisciplinary skills to make them,” says Ferren. “These people don’t spontaneously pop into existence, they need to be nurtured. Just as my grandpa did, and just as my parents did, we need to encourage [kids] to find their own path, even if it is very different from our own.”
He concludes with a beautiful thought. “Art and design are not luxuries, nor somehow incompatible with science and engineering,” says Ferren. “They are essential to what makes us special.”