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Editor's Points: Preconceived Notions

My 7-year-old son has a wonderful imagination and is always thinking of new inventions. “I’m going to find a way to capture lightning and turn it into free electricity for people to use,” he said to me the other day.

I beamed and told him it was a great idea while silently contemplating all of the impossibilities. Of course you can’t capture lightning, I thought, and even if you could invent a device capable of harnessing its incredible power for some positive use, you would be up against an entire industry that generates hundreds of thousands of jobs and massive profits for large corporations. You’d be trying to overturn an establishment.

I had similar doubts as I watched Franz von Holzhausen, head of design for Tesla Motors, present his concept for solar-powered vehicles in the year 2025 during an Autodesk University 2012 Innovation Forum on “The Future of Design.”* Free energy sounds wonderful until you stop to think about how much disruption would be created along the way. You can’t just change the way things have been done for centuries.

But--why not? One advantage my son has over me is that he’s not burdened by all the preconceived notions of the way something should be done. There are no boxes in his world, so he doesn’t even have to try to think outside of them. Guided solely by his imagination, he’s free to focus on what people need (which just happens to be electricity at the moment, since we’ve been talking a lot about how dependent we are on all our various electronic gadgets) and then devise a possible solution. Sure, he’ll eventually have to learn that there are some limitations. But all in all, I’ve decided that I need to try to think more like him.

That’s why I appreciate articles like this month’s cover story on California’s Hetch Hetchy water system. I’m sure Project Surveyor Sean Fitzpatrick of Towill Inc. never envisioned himself surveying a tunnel 100 feet under the floor of San Francisco Bay, but he didn’t let that stop him. Impossible? Not with the right attitude, experience and equipment.

I also enjoyed the recent article on by Zhong Chen, PE, PLS, “Why It’s Time to Consider Product-Based Surveying.” Chen challenges readers to think about survey work differently. “Product-based business models are quite common in other professions,” he says, “and may be more relevant and profitable given recent developments in survey deliverables.” He notes that such a shift in thinking will likely require imagination and changes within the profession.

As we face a world of rapidly changing technology and economic uncertainty at the start of 2013, it’s refreshing to consider that the way something has always been isn’t necessarily the way it should continue in the future. By challenging the status quo, we can discover new ideas that lead to better solutions.

What preconceived notions will you let go of this year? Share your thoughts in the online version of this column.

Best wishes for an audacious, prosperous year.

*The Autodesk University Innovation Forums were recorded and can be viewed on demand through


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