Daniel Etra 14 February 2008
Nourishing complexity + digging deep for real solutions
Daniel was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado and moved to Portland in 1998 to attend Reed College, where he studied Sociology and focused on the social construction of technology. His thesis was on the history of the US wind power industry, trying to understand how we shape technology – and are shaped by it – and how innovation happens in risk-averse industries. When the academics became too much, he stayed sane by spending hours in the darkroom making images or gardening and building Rube Goldberg-like devices in the backyard for watering the garden.
In 2003 he joined an energy consulting firm in Portland, learning the ins and outs of forensic economics. By day he’d investigate and research Enron’s manipulations of the Western electricity markets and help prepare expert testimony against Enron in federal regulatory court. By night he learned how to handle and sift vast amounts of data by indexing it and searching it rather than actually reading it.
Come 2005, he was tired of spending all his professional time looking backwards at things that went wrong with Enron and wanted to be more proactive to build solutions. He came on board with Ecotrust, one of the coolest and under appreciated sustainability think-and-do tanks in existence. The kind of place you learn about and think: “wow, they do that to?”
At Ecotrust Daniel helped grow a generous brand for the meme of Salmon Nation by facilitating the passions and interests of the people who call this bountiful pacific northwest bioregion home. At the same time he started an MBA program in sustainable business at Bainbridge Graduate Institute so he could learn how to grow economic value by restoring social and environmental capital. He finished the program last June and his capstone project was a business plan for an online trading platform enabling direct transactions between buyers and sellers for locally made food products.
Since the first of this year, Daniel has been exploring new ways to combine his passion for sustainability with his skills in strategic thinking, communications, team leadership and information systems design to help businesses generate profit without sacrificing social and environmental commitments.
What are you up to?
Right now I’m trying to figure out how to find my niche as a generalist in a specialist’s world. I like chewing on big, nasty, complex problems that don’t have easy answers, and I like facilitating new connections.
Recently I’ve gotten more active building the alumni network at Bainbridge Graduate Institute and am a currently a teaching assistant for the entrepreneurship course there. I’m struggling with finding new ways to deepen already strong connections between people in different places. So much web-based social networking is about building lots of weak-ties between people who don’t know each other that well. Finding and creating ways strengthen relationships without requiring people to become hyper-tech-geeks is something I’m really interested in.
When I’m not looking for my next career opportunity, I’m supporting my wife who’s in her second year of medical school at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine downtown.
What are you into?
Sometimes I wake up in the morning and imagine I’m a protein helping the brain form new neural connections; really I’m just a guy trying to get all these amazing people and tools to work together to make the world a better place for generations to come.
I’ve become more and more intrigued by the “local tech” and “local green” movements here in town that are both on the cusp of self awareness. Maybe they can find each other, and then we’d have great toys, great jobs and great solutions that we could give to the rest of the world.
I love discovering new ways to visualize data and find myself enamored by visual complexity. I’m also into watching people. It’s not all that odd for me to take field-trips to shopping malls or other places just to be entertained and fascinated by the other people who are alive at the same time in history as I.
What do you like most about Portland?
That the green leaves of the trees in the summer get replaced by green moss in the winter.
That the city supports so many little ecosystems living off one another.
That I don’t feel out of place for living authentically.
That no matter how many new coffee shops pop up, the market never seems to reach saturation.
That when I’m here I feel part of something bigger than myself.
How can we avoid the impending global crisis resulting from the dominant economic paradigm of perpetual growth and false premise of infinite resources without changing the way we live, think and feel?
This crisis can’t be avoided unless we change the way we live, think and feel. It’s going to be way harder than inventing a new technology or building a new tool or product. Sinking our teeth into this requires that we modify our worldview, not just our behavior or the things we consume. Some people hear this and they turn their backs. Not me: how exhilarating to be alive at a time when absolutely everything – products, services, economics – and even our mental models – needs to be reinvented?
I’ve got lots of ideas. So do you. Let’s make it happen.
You sound like a pretty serious person. Yes or yes?
I’m definitely an intellectual person, and that plays off as being serious. But I’m more playful that you might expect when you first meet me. I’m not an entertainer. I’m not the person at the party who tells jokes and always seems to have a story about how they almost died when they were traveling across Mexico on the back of a horse-sized dog.
I’m the person who laughs at your jokes and then tries to get things back on topic by asking you about the relationship between twitter and making money by eliminating poverty. Don’t see the relationship? Neither do I – at least not yet – so let’s connect and see what we can do.