(ideas.videos.) On the morning of May 7, I had the huge honor of giving the commencement address for PhD graduates at the Georgia Institute of Technology, my alma mater. I graduated in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and in 1999 with a Master of Architecture and Master of City Planning. My master’s thesis was an idea I called it the Atlanta Belt Line. Ever heard of it?
Click below to watch. Or here’s a link to watch the entire ceremony, (my speech starts at 1:36:14 if you get lost). Below is the text. >> Ryan
Thank you, President Cabrera. You’ve brought such a breath of fresh air to the Institute, and I appreciate you inviting me here today – and for those kind words. Wow.
Good Morning Georgia Tech!
I spent the 90s here at Tech, and wow – it is so much better looking now. Not just the campus – Look at you! How beautiful to see so much diversity. And your energy – it’s exciting.
I remember that feeling. Like you, I worked really hard at Tech and learned a lot among all this beauty and brilliance. Tech both inspired and intimidated me – but by the time I finished, I was done.
I loved going to Tech. I did. I even graduated in this same stadium.
I never could have imagined what would come next.
I’ll get to that, but it’s an honor to be here today. To share this milestone moment in your lives. And to share a few thoughts as you launch yourselves into your future – into our future, really.
This morning is about looking forward.
And you’re ready.
Even with all the world’s problems right now –the future is bright.
It is. All the problems – in our environment, in business, for social and racial justice, in the way we relate and connect to each other and to the world; in our culture, economy, and politics – all those problems – they need solutions. Every problem is an opportunity to make your mark in the world.
And those problems need you – and honestly, I think the world is ready to listen. I know I’m listening.
Back when I finished my decade at Georgia Tech, it didn’t seem like anyone was listening. But I did have an idea about my future.
I was here for architecture and urban planning. I studied cities and learned how to read them; how people use them; how they grow and develop. I got interested in how our cities shape our lives and how we, in turn, shape our cities.
I learned how to envision the future of cities, reframed by ideas about the future I wanted to see. And for my thesis project, I proposed an idea that could help turn this place – this sometimes soulless, car-dependent, hairball of a traffic jam that we call Atlanta – and turn it into the kind of place where I wanted to live and raise my future children.
I called it the Atlanta Beltline. You might have heard of it. It’s made from a 22-mile belt of old railroads circling downtown. I imagined it being transformed into a new kind of life-affirming infrastructure – an incentive for community revitalization and economic development across dozens of neighborhoods – all linked by an active and social transportation corridor.
A historic barrier turned into a new public meeting ground.
It was just an idea. I never thought we would actually build it.
Like you – I just wanted to graduate. And I did.
But that good idea followed me. I got a job designing loft apartment buildings, several of which happened to be along those same railroads. I told my coworkers about the idea I had in school and they thought it was cool. So, we started talking about the project. And the more people we talked to, the more people wanted to hear about it.
We built a movement that included people of all stripes – and even though they liked the Beltline for different reasons – for its transit, trails, parks, art, health, jobs, the tree canopy, housing, all that – they saw their personal interests as part of something bigger. They actively shared the idea with their friends and neighbors. And in the process, they became authors of the vision. It was their idea. And they expanded my idea beyond what any of us thought possible in the beginning.
There’s much more to the story of course, but there’s no denying that the driving force behind the project – even today – is love for an idea that connects the city together in both practical and symbolic ways.
That’s crazy. I mean, think about it. We had this huge, expensive, and audacious proposal for land we didn’t own, to be paid for with money we didn’t have, in a political environment that at that time was hostile to everything we were proposing.
If we had started by asking how we were going to pay for it, we never would have gotten it off the ground. Instead, we crafted an idea for our lives. And then we began doing the hard work of delivering that vision. And we are far from done, of course.
And it’s been 20 years.
And it’s been a tough slog in a lot of ways, personally – I’m not going to lie.
But there’s a lesson there. No matter how good your ideas are, when you put them out in the world, be prepared for them to get crushed – at least a little.
Crushed and rebuilt again – it’s no fun.
But it’s worth it. Because while we need good ideas more than ever, what we really need are good ideas that can be realized.
Only if you put your ideas out there – unlock them from the abstraction of your mind – or the cloud – or your thesis – and unleash them into the world – only with patience, creativity, and stamina – only if the right people hear about them and are compelled to action, only then can your ideas can be tested – crushed – and then adapted – to better fit the reality of the world.
That’s important, because if good ideas can be made real, then they’ll make an actual difference – not a theoretical one. Not just on paper; not just in your mind or in the cloud; but for your children. Ideas that can be realized may even grow into something far better than anything you ever imagined.
That’s certainly true of the Atlanta Beltline.
And those are the kinds of ideas we need – big audacious ideas that can be realized. Ideas that then catalyze more ideas.
Atlanta today is unrecognizable from the one I lived in when I was a student at Tech. My kids think it’s perfectly normal to walk to the grocery store. And Dr. Cabrera famously rides his bike across town to Georgia Tech!
It’s crazy that this is the same city.
But more change is coming, whether we want it or not – and we need your ideas to shape that change so that everyone benefits, nobody gets left behind, and our lives are made better in the process.
Georgia Tech has prepared you for that.
You don’t know what’s coming next, but you’re ready.
You’ve honed your talents and skills. Your late nights and hard work have been worth it.
Now’s the time to put your ideas to the test – to put them out in the world.
One last thing. One lesson from having my big dream crushed more than once.
Don’t wait for someone else to ask you for ideas.
Some of the best solutions come from ideas that nobody is asking for. And they change the world.
Just put it out there. Believe in yourself. Do the hard work that follows.
Dream bigger. Don’t look back.
And do it now because we need you – and we’re listening. I promise.
Thank you –
Congratulations, again! And GO JACKETS.
What a rare event! A Tech grad speaking from personal experience at Tech. An academic experience that he with popular support brought into a historic urban reality. A living example of the creativity, vision, courage, stamina, networking, teamship, gritty determination, etc., that it takes even for the smartest to achieve & contribute positively & lastingly. And still remain hopeful, determined, envisioned–& even have a great sense of humor! If those PhD graduates follow your example, Ryan, even an old battle-worn warrior like me can take hope for our world! Thank you for your life example & encouraging speech.
So proud of you & glad for you, Ryan! Way to go!
A great honor and a great speech. You are now in lofty company with the likes of John Portman as Yellow Jackets who have put a Buzz in Atlanta. So, you don’t know what’s coming next, but be ready.
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