CXO

Mickey McManus: Autodesk researcher. Futurist. Technology humanizer.

Mickey McManus, a respected connectivity expert, research fellow at Autodesk, and chairman of MAYA, talked to TechRepublic about his work and his passion for humanizing technology.

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Mickey McManus is the former CEO and president of MAYA.
Image: TED Talks
Many of us try to emphasize the importance of humanizing technology, but often, we are so bogged down in the details of processors and supercomputers, of buzzwords like Internet of Things and big data, of hacking and security, and of the uncertain, slightly disconcerting future of technology, that we forget that above all else, it's about people. Human beings. Us.

There may be no greater proponent of that mentality than Mickey McManus. He lives it, breathes it, talks about it on the grandest scale even when it really has nothing to do with the question he's asked.

McManus is chairman of MAYA, a design consultancy and technology research lab that focuses on the intersection of design, people, and technology. He is also a research fellow at Autodesk. He is the co-author of Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, a field guide for the future written by the principal researchers at MAYA.

But more than anything, he is a master at putting the future of technology into a context in a way that makes you feel like we've barely scratched the surface, that anything is possible, and he has an idea of what's coming.

"It's really going to be this era of unbound complexity, about putting people first," he said. "The people that get smart about understanding how nature solves this, how life solves this, how other complex systems work, are the ones that are gonna have the keys to the kingdom basically."

On CNET: How Carl Bass is crafting Autodesk's push for makers like you

McManus grew up in Chicago. His mother was a school teacher and scientist, and she taught him science. His father was a mechanic, and he taught McManus how to break everything apart and put it back together again. Some of McManus' fondest memories are walking through the streets and alleyways in Chicago, finding cool things and turning them into other things; and every Christmas morning, breaking apart his toys and putting them together again.

He also had a really good set of high school teachers that stressed the importance of science — that it's best to learn from experiments and try different kinds of things. Going into college at University of Illinois Chicago, McManus wanted to be an inventor. Of course, there's no degree in inventing, and guidance counselors didn't really know what to tell him. So, he focused on physics. Two years into his studies, he realized his "brain wasn't shaped for physics."

One day, someone showed him the School of Architecture, Design, and the Arts.

"I walked in the door, [and] it was somebody building a monorail and someone designing a motorcycle and someone designing a typeface, and someone designing a building, and a watch, and shoes, and I was like, 'Wait, what is this place?'" he said.

That was his first glimpse into the world of industrial design. To this day, he remembers a quote that he has carried with him about the subject. Herbert Simon once said that "design is the systematic attempt to change the future." McManus loved the idea — it was about taking existing situations and turning them into preferred situations, he said.

After college, he dove into industrial and product design. He founded an agency, Elan Communications, right around the dot com boom, and then worked for Giltspur, Inc., where he played an integral role in designing the Athletes and Family Center at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. He spent a year planning the center, designing spaces for the athletes and their families to hang out for 15 days.

The goal was 250,000 people, but 1.2 million people floated through the center in that time. It was a huge tech undertaking, with jumbotrons and performance spaces and nightclubs and massive lighting and sensor systems.

"It's a real eye opener when [you're at] the Olympics and Windows reboots on the side of the building," he said. "It was insane that we as a society couldn't keep something computational in a physical environment running for 15 days, with a team of technicians constantly keeping the damn thing alive, how are we going to live with this when it actually suddenly gets ubiquitous?"

In 2001, McManus talked to Peter Lucas, founder of MAYA. Lucas was working on a research project to look at how nature solves computational problems, and wanted to work on building an ecosystem for informational devices so people could coexist with technology better.

In short, he wanted the focus to be back on people.

Shortly after, McManus became the president and CEO of MAYA. He ran it for 13 years, and remains the chairman, but he's currently on sabbatical.

Some of the research projects incubated there include: Luma Institute, which helps educate organizations around the world about innovation; Rhiza, a software company that uses a human-centered approach to big data; and several startups that spun out of the team's research.

"I didn't want to break it - I'm sure I tried really hard to break it a bunch of times through naivety and learning," McManus said.

On CNET: Autodesk helps to make the maker (pictures)

But it was such a beautiful, resilient culture, his job was to celebrate that. The research lab was built around high performance teams, which meant teams of people different from each other who challenged, competed, and collaborated to build a future for technology. That was the culture he made sure to incubate for more than a decade.

"If we can make anything, and we can make it right, maybe we should make the right thing now. Maybe we should focus on making the right thing and stop getting fascinated by technology — let's focus back on people," he said. "We teach human-centered innovation around the world now, [which was] incubated when I was president and CEO."

A huge part of McManus' research, both at MAYA and outside of it, has always been about connectivity, and relating it back to our physical environment.

"It was all about how do we not just think of connectivity of this great new little thing and get all sort of fanboy and get all excited about it," he said."Instead [it's] saying, 'What does it empower?'"

That was the basis of Trillions, which is about the fact that the number of devices in the world — now more than people — will climb into the trillions, and they'll all be talking to each other one day. It's about looking to nature and the human body — which have the most effective memory, storage, and communication systems — to better understand technology and bring us into a new era of computing.

In May 2014, McManus decided to take a sabbatical, and moved to California to be a research fellow at Autodesk. The company's research team is working on cutting edge innovations that go way beyond AutoCAD, the company's popular computer-aided design software. He'd always respected, admired, and promoted the company, and the opportunity to work with their huge research group was just how he wanted to spend his time. His research focuses on digital manufacturing, and what happens when it meets IoT, machine learning, smarter materials, and connected materials.

That's probably not everyone's ideal sabbatical, but McManus jokes that one of his superpowers is "overthinking." He thrives in a culture of structured wandering into the future, and of constantly learning from others around him.

"I'm in awe every day," he said.

In his own words...

How do you unplug?

"Part of it is I'm writing more. The notion of waking up and writing is new to me. I'm talking to startups in deep, quiet mode..I'm traveling more. [I just went] on a father-son journey to Africa, [to] Zimbabwe. Unplugging like that has been so good. Really, it's just learning."

Looking back, what is some advice you would give yourself?

"Trust others. Be humble and maybe not decide so fast, because deciding is not leading...letting it be [in an] uncomfortable middle, trusting the team, letting them wander a bit and get lost. Collaboration ultimately means not being a dilettante...It feels inefficient, but it's much more efficient."

What type of culture did you try to create at MAYA?

"[We] really believe in architecture and stepping back and seeing the forest through the trees and stepping back and not just solving a problem but solving for the comprehensive challenge. It's going to take collaborative efforts."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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