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Lessons from Former WDI R&D Chief Bran Ferren

When I’m not being a Disney geek, I play at being an actual geek, so when I see something from Walt Disney Imagineering’s Research and Development team I get really excited as it combines those two passions.

Here’s a video of Bran Ferren, former president of WDI’s R&D division, talking to the Harvard Center for Public Leadership about the six things you need for leadership in the future. The middle section of the 2 hour speech is about his time at WDI. But the whole thing is worth watching. Perfect for a weekend with no college football.

Go ahead and watch, I’ll wait.

Okay. Two hours is a long time, so if you didn’t watch, I understand. One of the interesting things Ferren discusses is how he was hired by Michael Eisner to essentially make sure the company would be relevant in its core competency, Story Telling, for the foreseeable future. To do that he wanted to look at the history of all technological innovations that improved humanity’s ability to perform Story Telling and see if there was a pattern he could base his recommendations on.

Turns out there was. From the invention of movable type (Gutenberg Bible) through to Television, the key thing all the technologies had in common was that they were invented for a different purpose than they eventually served, and the inventor did not get rich off the invention, usually dying penniless.

Ferren was willing to bet that the next “Big Thing” that would totally change story telling was this little thing called “The Internet”. Since it was already invented, no need to worry about dying penniless. This was circa the late 80s, so the World Wide Web of hyperlinked information had yet to be introduced. But even knowing what he knew then, and following what he call’s Ferren’s law, that humans in the future will continue to desire the same things they desire now (love, safety, family, truth, and entertainment), Ferren told Eisner to bet the future of the Walt Disney Company on The Internet.

Ferren claims that Eisner didn’t listen to him, at least not to everything he said. Still Disney did buy Infoseek, which gave them, in an attempt to compete with the two 800 lb gorilla’s of the time (AOL and Altavista). Not the best move as it turns out, and I’m not sure we can blame that huge write-off on Ferren. Eisner just never saw the potential of a Google because they were concerned with managing content, and not organizing to find it. A big mistake, but also not Disney’s core competency, so it’s understandable.

What if Eisner had bet the whole company on this internet thing? And instead of trying to become the next AOL, had tried to become the first Hulu or Youtube, but 10 years ago and with tools that WDI had developed to make Story Telling incredibly simple to do. What if the Mouse House had for seen that small mobile web enabled devices connecting everything and every bit of knowledge was the future 5 years ago, would they have the corner on the iPhone market today instead of Apple? Interesting to think about, eh.

The internet we know today is very different than what we’ll see in a few years. As Ferren says it’s like sitting on the shore of an ocean and being asked to talk with authority about what’s happening 500 miles out and 2 miles down. But that’s more about the technology, which will change; the basic idea being the internet will remain the same. It’s there to aid humans in interacting with each other in new and better ways. Story telling remains one of the core drivers behind development of The Web and what it will look like in the future (the thing to see here is Kevin Kelly’s recent talk to be really blown away)

Based on what I hear from Burbank, current CEO Bob Iger is painfully aware that Eisner made a mistake cutting Ferren and his R&D guys from Walt Disney Imagineering. I don’t think it’s too late for Disney to innovate using the The Web (which is conceptually different from the internet, but related and nearly interchangeable, at least in conversation) as a platform for Story Telling, neither does Iger if you look at the recent moves he made in the film divisions.

What if today Iger decides to bet the whole company on this internet thing? First, everything is moving to mobile web enabled devices. Number one thing on the list is to partner with Apple. Check, that’s done. Number two thing on the list is to develop tools that will help earn the company revenue for content, while still understanding that you can never prevent piracy and any attempt to do so harms your customers (and therefore your future bottom line) more so than it does the Pirates, most of which who are just ultra fans who can wait to get their hands on your product to see if it’s worth buying for real in the future anyway. My understanding is that these things are going on right now.

I think there is some pretty spectacular potential for Story Telling in a world where everything is a web enabled device and can tell you its story (where it was made, what raw materials it used, when its next maintenance will be needed, how much energy it used, if you child has been doing all their homework, etc) and is constantly checking in with other devices to work together.

As Bran Ferren concludes, education is the “Big Thing” everyone should be working on right now. That means Disney too. I think now would be the perfect time for Walt’s legacy in Edutainment to be revived, just as they’ve done with the True Life Adventure stories (see EARTH and the DisneyNature shingle), but get back to Donald in Mathmagic Land, revive Professor Owl and Ludwig Von Drake to introduce core bits of knowledge to today’s kids that they need to function in the world of tomorrow. Bring that same spirit into the parks in Tomorrowland and EPCOT and onto the web through Disney interactive.

What do you think? Is this the right track for Disney?

4 thoughts on “Lessons from Former WDI R&D Chief Bran Ferren”

  1. Ludwig Von Drake exploring and explaining the internet, cellphones and other modern technology could be hilarious.

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  3. One of the coolest things I’ve done is serve as a science education content advisor for Disney’s “Find Out Why” series of animated shorts that aired as interstitials during the ABC Saturday morning cartoon line-up in 1998-99. I actually got to combine my science geek-ness with my disney geek-ness!

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