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Spotlight: Envisioning the Future and the Arts

David Jones is an Executive Producer and Principal Program Manager on Microsoft’s Envisioning team, which explores what the world of work will look like in the future.  He started his career at Microsoft 23 years ago as an engineer on the Excel team, and has volunteered his time over the past 3 years to help ArtsFund completely revamp our Excel-based allocations system. We recently sat down with David to talk about his reasons for supporting ArtsFund, and the role he sees the arts playing in the future.

At Microsoft, your focus is on the future of work, and how technology is changing what we do, and how we do it. What role do you think the arts play in this?

I believe the arts will become increasingly important in the future. The advances we’re making in robotics and artificial intelligence will eventually allow us to automate most if not all of the routine work that people do today. The work that remains will require strong social and creative skills – the things that machines are inherently bad at. And as it turns out, the arts are one of the most effective ways to teach these skills.

The arts teach kids how to communicate, take feedback, and collaborate with others. They teach about empathy and how to see things from multiple perspectives. They teach perseverance and creative problem solving. They teach you how to work with problems for which there is no one correct answer. These kinds of skills are important now, and will become even more critical for success in the future.

I also think technology will become increasingly important to the arts too. Technology is essentially a design medium, and as it becomes cheaper, more powerful, and more ubiquitous, artists are going to use it to bring ideas to life in powerful, new and unexpected ways.

Why are the arts important to you? Is there a personal connection?

To me, the arts – music, dance, visual, and storytelling of all kinds – represent the highest form of human expression. They are a source of wonder, inspiration, reflection, as well as entertainment. They enhance our quality of life. To put it simply: without the arts, life would be boring.

As my career has evolved, I’ve gone from being focused on primarily technical design, to now storytelling and immersive experience design, including everything from user models to physical environments. There’s a huge overlap in the skills involved in both art and design. This exposure to design has given me a much deeper appreciation for the arts – especially the depth of talent and effort and perseverance it takes to create meaningful works of art.

I’ve also been amazed by the healing power of the arts. I first learned about this from Tom Skerritt and Vijay Gupta’s keynotes at last year’s ArtsFund luncheon. It really opened my eyes to the potential the arts have to be used as a tool for doing good in the community. Even my own mother, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, is now using dance to help retain her mobility and quality of life. The more you look the more you realize the positive impact the arts can have on so many aspects of our lives.

Why the commitment to ArtsFund?

I support ArtsFund for two reasons. First, I believe that a healthy arts community is a critical part of the dynamic that is helping turn Seattle into a world-class city. The technology sector is a big driver of our economic success, and for this to continue we need to attract more than just technical talent – we need creative talent. And the best creative talent won’t live in an area that doesn’t have a dynamic and inspiring arts scene. So we’re lucky to have the diverse and vibrant arts community that we do in our area, and we have ArtsFund – and the work they’ve been doing for the past almost 50 years – in part to thank for it. We should not take this for granted – we need to actively support it on an ongoing basis.

The second reason comes from my experience doing volunteer work for ArtsFund. Going into it, I had no idea how dependent our beloved arts institutions were on financial support from donors. They don’t just not make a profit – they need ongoing donations just to keep existing. And of these donations, the unrestricted grants that ArtsFund gives are the most valuable, as they can be used to cover general operating costs.

I was also deeply impressed by all the education and advocacy work ArtsFund does for the arts community. This work is vital to its ongoing health. And I was moved by all the great work I learned the arts community itself is doing . . . things like bringing arts education into schools, lowering barriers to access, and reaching out to underserved communities. When you see the impact and hear the stories of the lives being touched by these efforts, you can’t help but want to support them. It’s simply the right thing to do.

How does working for a company with deep commitment to community philanthropy affect you?

It’s something that has always made me very proud to work at Microsoft. It’s also something that becomes more personally important to me with every passing year. As people get older I think they naturally want to give back to the community more, and I’m grateful that Microsoft is so supportive of their employees doing this. The company effectively doubles the impact of whatever volunteering or charitable giving we do with matching donations – it’s like having a super-power that amplifies our ability to do good in the community. It’s truly a great thing.

Photo of David Jones courtesy of Microsoft.