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Tom Frey Combines Da Vinci's Curiosity With 21st-Century Engineer's Know-How

As founder of the DaVinci Institute, Tom Frey is one of the world's most sought-after experts about the future. Like the Renaissance Man for whom his institute is named, Frey's unquenchable curiosity fuels his powers of invention.

Exploring the theoretical, creating the tangible

He's suggested ways to patent smells. He's envisioned shoes that know when to warm your feet or cool them off. For the wealthy nation of Dubai, which is constructing artificial islands in the Persian Gulf, Frey suggested selling them as autonomous countries, rather than just as real estate. He says that servicing those micro-nations would earn Dubai plenty of money. Even better, it would give the world places to try new styles of government.

"The rest of the world is so locked into our existing systems. We can't test things out," he says. "And so, that's the advantage, and I think we need to go that direction."

In addition to speculative projects, Frey offers practical tools for shaping the future. His institute is teaching aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs the skills they need to make their ideas viable.

Today, at the DaVinci Institute headquarters in Louisville, Colorado, he and his wife, Deb, are holding a class about an Internet sensation known as Twitter. Twitter lets users share short messages with people who like to keep in touch with others throughout the day. Deb tells the class it's a friendly way to create a following for a business.

"I get a lot of things that say, 'Hey, Deb, I went to your Web site. DaVinci Institute sounds like a great thing. Can we talk?'"

But while the Freys value networking, at this Twitter class, they warn that it has downsides.

Deb admits, "Tom and I'll be at a restaurant, and we're waiting for our food. Now, you'd think we'd be visiting with each other. But no. We're on Twitter, and we're checking our e-mails and all that. It's terrible. It's a really bad habit."

Tom chimes in, "I know that if I'm up working and she's still sleeping in bed, I can e-mail her and I'll get a reply!"

A mission to shape the future

Tom Frey says that teaching Twittering fits the institute's mission.

"The DaVinci Institute has been set up as a futurist think tank. But we decided early that we didn't just want to talk about the future. We wanted to help create it."

Frey was already dreaming of the future as he grew up on a grain farm in South Dakota. But his wife says some of the stories about his childhood aren't flattering.

"His dad told me that he ruined more farm equipment than anybody he had ever seen, because he was always daydreaming, so he wasn't always paying attention to what he was doing."

She adds with a laugh, "He was always thinking of the next best thing, or the future, more the dreamer part."

All that thinking led Frey to engineering and hundreds of awards for innovation.

"One of my claims to fame is I spent 15 years at IBM and received more awards than any other engineer," he says.

About 12 years ago, Frey says, a nightmare made him realize those awards weren't enough.

"The nightmare was all about, if I didn't do anything with my ideas, I was going to stop having them. And that was like getting my arms cut off!"

Creating a center for visionary thought and action

To make ideas the center of his life, Frey launched the DaVinci Institute. Frey says the institute stumbled at first, but then his wife helped him build a following by organizing bimonthly lectures, called a Night with a Futurist.

They created gatherings for start-up businesses, dubbed the Start-up Junkie Underground. They recruited a Board of Visionaries that includes science fiction writers, entrepreneurs and scientists. These visionaries help Frey focus in on the most exciting topics for his presentations and other ways to communicate new ideas.

Whether it's blogs, video conferencing, virtual worlds or Twitter, Tom Frey says social networking can lead to future success for business people, and maybe someday, even for peace.

"We are recognizing that people on the other side of the world are pretty much the same as we are. They're a lot like we are. They're running into the same problems, the same social issues," he points out. "The chances of going to war against people that you're talking to through social networking are greatly reduced. That's one of the advantages that we're speculating on."

While Frey is a futurist, in some ways, he says proudly, he's old-fashioned. "I still believe in marriage. I love Deb. She's my wife."

"Aw," Deb responds with a giggle. "That was sweet."