Undergraduate Convocation Remarks by John "Mac" McQuown

Thank you Dean Ottino for the opportunity to present here today. And my gratitude extends to your outstanding McCormick faculty, several of whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and admire in recent years. Thank you parents for your economic support and “showing up.” And of course thanks President Schapiro and other honored guests. Most important, my heartiest congratulations to you graduates! I’m honored to share these thoughts with you today.

As you graduate today, you face an extraordinary challenge and opportunity unique to our time: creating the next technological chapter that will eliminate environmental pollution caused by human beings. As engineers, applied scientists, and entrepreneurs who, as the Dean says, are graduates in “whole-brain thinking,” herein resides your future. Of course, you might well wonder how I’ve arrived on this “environmental square” myself, so I’ll briefly trace my life-path since emerging from McCormick Class of 1957. After all, life is not a neat linear path from A to Z.  Perhaps my life path may assist in conveying my perspective.

My five years at McCormick — simply called “Tech School” in my day — included co-oping at a company that manufactured steel office furniture, where I worked on product plus tool and die designs. So I actually did “do” some real mechanical engineering, albeit more than five decades ago. Commissioned out of the NROTC, my ensuing two years were aboard a destroyer ported in San Diego but trans-versing the vast Pacific, where I became chief engineer and where the importance of the oceans first began to sink-into my consciousness.

Then arose the first of many kinks in my life path:  enrolling in an MBA program, where I concentrated on finance, after which I headed to Wall Street to work on capital raising for corporations. I was one of the first trained engineers ever hired by a Wall Street firm.

After only three years in New York, I encountered yet another life-path kink. I was hired by the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco to setup and oversee what he called the Wells’ “think tank”.  My decade at Wells importantly included, as part of my responsibility, the first equity index fund, a collaboration that launched Master Card, seminal quantitative measures of both personal and corporate credit default risk, and the financial economics of retail bank branches. Alas, my training in mechanical engineering and then finance had morphed into data-driven applied computer science directed at financial services innovation.

After my exhilarating decade at Wells Fargo, I summarily departed to become the start-up entrepreneur that I remain today. Together with a number of talented partners and investors, I went on to co-found more than a dozen companies, four of which continue to consume my energy today. That is 40 years later. While a few of these companies were in “tech space” and in the California fine wine industry, most of these start-ups were innovating in financial services — all deeply data driven while deploying the scientific method. And all are examples of the Dean’s “whole-brain thinking” philosophy — or so Julio assures me. Certainly, my Tech School engineering training in many respects was the most significant fraction of my formal education, for here I learned the principles of science that remain vital to me today in each of the four enterprises in which I’m still involved.

Then, more than a dozen years ago, I became a member of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Director’s Advisory Council. In this role, I found myself immersed in the sciences and measurement technologies related to the atmosphere, oceans, and terra-firma. I should underscore the staggering scale of the empirical data emerging from these earth sciences. Not surprising, I suppose, an important fraction of my effort has been toward transforming the emergent knowledge and know-how from these earth sciences findings into fledgling enterprises that are focused on solving environmental degradation.

Here is an example of a crucial environmental issue. You’ve doubtless heard of the present California drought, where measurements are, as usual, revealing.  As of May 1st this year, California’s Sierra snowpack was about one-seventh of the average of the last century. Of course, California is a semi-desert since rain and snow almost only fall during half of the year from November to April; however, one-seventh of the historical average means the Sierra snowpack is some two standard deviations below the mean of a century of observations. So, the scale of this year’s negative deviation from the mean has the probability of occurrence of about twice per century — presuming the distribution is “normal”.    That is certainly well below the expectation. Whether human waste is involved we do not know, but we had better figure that out.

This begs the crucial question: what, more generally, is the contribution of human waste to the degradation of the environment that we are today so often discovering? I’ve chosen to make this the central focus of my remarks here today, for I find it extremely likely to be relevant to your life-paths hereafter. In my view, the evolution out of the imposition of human waste represents the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity ever, and a corresponding challenge for a protracted progression of technological substitutions.

When all is said and done, I’m exceptionally exhilarated by the prospects for the future, and that is because we humans will determine the relationship between human waste and the environment, and we will invent the means to resolve the its degradation.  

The global human culture is one of ever expanding science and technology, and its corresponding entrepreneurship, design, and engineering. This is your “space”, the place where your competence will be exercised. Indeed, this is the source of the value added in our culture, the process of perpetual technological substitution, where the new successfully challenges the established order. At the core, of course, is innovation arising out of human capital, and here I am referring to you graduates.

This day marks an important milestone that commenced years ago when you graduates entered McCormick in anticipation of taking your place in the next “technological chapter” of our ever-evolving human culture.

The impact on our culture of engineering graduates will be expanding at an ever-greater pace as this transformation accelerates. For look around, it has already begun. Think about photo-voltaic panels to generate electricity directly from the sun’s inbound photons, or hydrogen fuel being made from electrons that emerge from PVs, or the Tesla automobile. The environment will benefit immensely from these transformations. I find this vast transformation is being propelled by two determinants.

First is that of “necessity”. We must greatly reduce the impact on the environment of the evolving production functions, and resultant consumption of all goods and services. Indeed, reduction until our human impact is environmentally neutral: that is surely the necessity. We will learn to issue no wastes that our natural world is unable to readily ingest and digest. Just think about the impact of burning fossil fuels and leaving CO2 estranged in the atmosphere with a half-life measured in centuries. Or leakage from landfills into the fresh water table. Or industrial pollution of our rivers. Or the “sump” the oceans have become for much of our non-biodegradable plastic. Today very little that we produce/consume is environmentally neutral.

You, as engineers and applied scientists, will become the drivers and torch bearers of this massive unprecedented transformation, coupled with the designers and entrepreneurs, whether from de novo firms or in established enterprises. This transformation entails the near total replacement of existing production functions with environmentally neutral production of goods and services.

The pace of this transformation — ever more technological substitution — will need to be as fast as possible, limited only by human understanding and inventiveness. It is clear this will entail a lot of whole-brain thinking.

In your various engineering and scientific disciplines, you’ll be carrying the lion’s share of the responsibility for creating and executing this transformation. This suggests that many of you are destined to become either entrepreneurs or partners with entrepreneurs. This is not a “top-down” economic policy problem. This is a “bottoms-up” opportunity for enterprises, large and small, established and de novo, and that includes each and every one of you, one way or another!

Yours will be a journey of immense significance. As I’ve said, greater than the technological evolution of all prior human generations taken together. The required evolution will make, for example, the evolution from horse and buggy to jet plane seem far less consequential. Today we know that transition did not adequately anticipate its environmental influence or its economic consequences. Horse-to-jet required only two human generations; the transformation you are entering needs to be ushered-in in a single generation: yours.

The second determining condition is that of “sufficiency”: the environmental transformation will be inherently economically propelled. Entrepreneurial economics is always the propellant of technological innovation and substitution, and this one will hardly be the exception. Only its scale will be different:  this one will leave almost nothing untouched.

For example, the evolution from silicon switches in our computers and telecommunications devices to nano-scaled technology switches will cut today’s related wasted energy by several orders of magnitude, while enhancing speed and compactness by several orders of magnitude as well. This will cause the aggregate energy demanded for these vital cultural connections to fall far below today’s level, even after unimaginably greater total demand for human electronic-based connectivity

These two determinants are the technological and economic challenges — the stakes. You will provide the innovation. So go forward with energy, imagination, creativity, and determination. It will be an enormously rewarding experience from the perspective of your individual personal satisfaction, and indeed economic gain for human cultures, while depolluting the environment.

Your unprecedented human challenge is to achieve production and consumption without environmental degradation. For each of you graduates, this vast opportunity, this vast adventure, commences today. The day your McCormick journey transitions to not just making a living, but making a staggering difference to the foot print of humans on the environment. The entire community of humans and the environment await your contribution. Go get the job done with immense pleasure — heads-up high, smiling all the way!

Thank you!