Ahead of the curve
"At age 15, I wanted to see if I could use this computer to understand large groups and systems."
Bray has always had burning questions. The son of a Methodist minister and public-school teacher, a young Bray dreamed of becoming an explorer. “I was disappointed when I looked at the maps and found out the world had already been explored,” Bray said. Instead of taking flight literally, he took flight in his intellect, delving into questions that few had asked, like “what problems humanity might face in the future, and how to get ahead of those problems?”
In 1982, Bray’s grandfather gave each of his sons’ families one IBM PC. At age 15, Bray began to teach himself how it operated, taking it apart and putting it back together. And then, a connection occurred. “I wanted to see if I could use this computer to understand large groups and systems,” he recalled. “I was really interested in complex systems that aren’t easily predicted by physics.”
Early science fair projects involved using the computer to model oil spills, greenhouse effects (early global warming) and plate tectonics. His work caught the eye of the government, and Bray was offered a job at age 15 in Newport News, Virginia, at a physics facility. Later, at age 17, he obtained a security clearance to work for the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia. “At IDA, I was part of a think tank working with small satellites to see if we could use them for civilian purposes, one example being whether we could locate forest fires from space and predict where they would go.” The work continued until he graduated from high school, and he went on to demonstrate that such an idea was viable.
During his undergraduate years at Emory, Bray studied biology (“another complex system”) and computer science, which led to full-time work with the CDC’s Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program. In 2001, he was already asking cutting-edge questions like “if there ever was an act of biological terrorism, what would we do in terms of technology in response?”
As part of his role with the Laboratory Response Network, he was scheduled to share details on these efforts at 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001. That briefing was postponed, however, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mobilized to respond to the tragic events of the day. After three weeks of helping with the response, Bray was rescheduled to give the briefing on October 3, 2001, right before the anthrax events of October 2001 unfolded and his work with the Laboratory Response Network became quite prescient for the public. Bray was later involved in the responses to West Nile virus in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome, a U.S. outbreak of monkeypox in 2003 and other emergency responses.
"David is a change agent, focused on the leveraging of technology and social capabilities in the services of cooperation and collaboration — to serve a positive social end."
As Bray continued to ask important questions that transcended fields of study, he searched for the right school of thought to pursue his doctorate. He landed at Goizueta. “When I interviewed at engineering schools, they were less focused on the people side of complex systems,” Bray recalled. “When I interviewed at policy schools, they didn’t care about the technology side of complex systems. In the business school context, they cared about both — the human side and the tech side, as they work on helping organizations become efficient,” he concluded. During his work at Goizueta, Bray worked closely with Professor Benn Konsynski. “Benn is fond of calling those who he works closely with ‘Students of Benn,’ aka SOBs. I’m a proud SOB,” he noted with a smile. The admiration between the two is mutual.
“I began working with David as he eased out of his responsibilities at the CDC and began his PhD work,” said Konsynski, who was Bray’s academic advisor and chair of his doctoral degree committee. “David is a change agent, focused on the leveraging of technology and social capabilities in the services of cooperation and collaboration — to serve a positive social end,” added Konsynski. “I have always been enriched by our collaborations, as we share an excitement on emergent technologies and human possibilities. David’s unbounded humanity, intelligence, creativity and imagination are all purposefully directed.”
"My professional skills involve asking questions from different perspectives, navigating through challenging circumstances, and building teams of positive change agents focused on hard, ‘near impossible’ assignments."
As he pursued his PhD, the driving question Bray sought to answer was “how do you improve organizational response to disruptive events, including best practices for linking people to technology?” Along the way, he started to post draft papers online which went against the prevailing thought at that time in academia that sharing draft papers might enable someone to copy your ideas. Again, Bray was more focused on collaboration and connecting with other folks interested in the topics of how to help organizations and societies become more resilient to a rapidly changing world.
In 2008, he completed post-doctoral associateships at MIT and Harvard focused on collective intelligence and leadership in a networked world. He worked with Emory Professor Holli Semetko, then vice provost for international affairs and director of the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, and Konsynski on the Knowledge Futures Initiative, an interdisciplinary collaboration on digital impacts. Bray, Jerry Mechling at Harvard, Konsynski and Semetko posted a working paper on SSRN in August 2008, offering advice for the incoming president entitled “Collective Intelligence in the Executive Branch: Ten Priority Issues for the Next U.S. President,” that generated a fair share of readers.
“[David] is a natural leader with the ability to bring teams together to achieve critical goals in this time of great disruption.”
“David is what you might call a very early adopter of the mindset necessary to understand the transformational changes impacting private and public sectors alike, due to advancing technologies,” said Semetko, Asa Griggs Candler professor of media and international affairs and professor of political science. “He is a natural leader with the ability to bring teams together to achieve critical goals in this time of great disruption.”
After graduation, Bray returned to the Institute for Defense Analyses and spent 120 days as a civilian in Afghanistan in 2009 with the assignment of identifying “problems not identified yet” at the start of the new administration. His assessments were directly reviewed by the trip’s sponsor, the U.S. Department of Defense. Some of his suggestions were based on his dissertation which focused on bottom-up knowledge flows and empowering the edge to provide better situational awareness in turbulent environments.
Bray later served as a senior national intelligence service executive with the U.S. Intelligence Community, as executive director for a national research and development commission, and as nonpartisan senior executive and CIO for the Federal Communications Commission.
“If we don’t address this, the era ahead might, unfortunately, favor autocracies with a singular view, versus a plurality of perspectives.”
Most recently, Bray assumed the role of executive director of the People-Centered Internet coalition. PCI founder and Chairman Vint Cerf — known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet”—and co-founder Mei Lin Fung, who co-designed the earliest CRM system, encouraged Bray to join them in 2017. Bray’s close friend Vint Cerf, who also chairs the PCI board, described him as “extremely smart, articulate, ultrareliable and dedicated to his work and family… [a] great burden was taken from my shoulders as chairman when he took up directorship.”
With half the world’s population lacking internet connectivity, part of the mission of PCI is to remedy that situation in areas such as the Native American communities in the U.S and in other parts of the world. The second part of PCI’s mission is to create partnerships and dialogue that can steer the internet into “a force for good, versus a polarizing force.” Both Cerf and Bray have concerns about the lack of more nuanced conversations online. “Currently online topics that go viral the most are those fueled with either anger, hate or fear,” Bray cited. “If we don’t address this, the era ahead might, unfortunately, favor autocracies with a singular view, versus a plurality of perspectives.”
“Sometimes you try to help solve an issue and you encounter flak or negative headwinds because it’s a complicated issue.”
When asked why he seeks to take on complicated and often messy problems that involve emergent issues, people, societies and technology, Bray responded, “My parents demonstrated a life of service and giving back. My professional skills involve asking questions from different perspectives, navigating through challenging circumstances, and building teams of positive change agents focused on hard, ‘near impossible’ assignments. Sometimes you try to help solve an issue and you encounter flak or negative headwinds because it’s a complicated issue. Other times you push through and find ways to help people achieve results that they previously thought couldn’t be done.”
Bray also credits a lot of his energy to his partner in life, his wife Diane. “We were married at the chapel on Emory’s campus right before I started my PhD at Goizueta. She and I opted to plant a tree together after a small ceremony. Diane brings caring, compassion, and focus on the present that enables me to focus on long-term issues in the world.” With the addition of a new baby son, Dylan, into the family, Bray has been inspired with even more questions, like “what does the future of the internet, do-it-yourself biology and other disruptive technologies look like in 2030? Will these technologies be individual- and community-affirming, or will they become ever-more polarizing forces?”
Motivated by his time in different turbulent environments and PhD learnings from Goizueta, Bray, along with his PCI colleagues, hopes to solve some of the thorny challenges at the intersection of people, technology and societies. Bray wonders, “Will technologies super-empower people to build more positive communities or will such technologies pull people apart and make us more divided? Can the United States’ experiment of self-governance survive the decade ahead? What about other disruptive technologies’ impacts on open societies in Europe and around the world?” Bray hopes to find new solutions to enable us to be connected and thrive in more positive “living, learning communities” around the world.