Known for his astonishing trip around the globe without fuel in a solar-powered airplane, Bertrand Piccard describes himself as a serial explorer, psychiatrist and clean technology pioneer. In his keynote speech at a recent conference organized by Louvain School Management (UCLouvain), Piccard reflected on the psychological dimension of disruptive innovation, citing the existing narrative on the environment as a negative example and calling for a new, positive approach.
When does disruption occur?
Disruptive change is the work of “explorers” who dare to do things differently than we are all taught. They break the rules in a drive to improve a situation they see as unsatisfactory, Bertrand Piccard began. “Innovation does not come simply because you have a new idea,” he rushed to stress, noting that a psychological paradigm shift is needed as well: “Innovation comes when you get put an old belief aside so that your mind is empty enough to welcome something new.”
He cited the first 70 years of the 20th century as a time when much previously thought impossible was achieved: explorers flew the first aeroplane, reached the South Pole and North Pole, rose to the heights of Mount Everest and the depths of the Marina Trench, and visited the Moon. “What does this show? That we have to analyse the paradigms we base our present on and try something else.”
When we focus only on what we know, we miss everything else, he argued. “We tend to rely on what is scientifically or statistically proven, reproducible. We don’t look left or right. We’re afraid of life’s uncertainties,” preferring to repeat what is predictable. And for a time, it works. “It’s true that humankind has never had such a good period in history as in the last 70 years,” Piccard noted. “But now we’re hitting obstacles and thinking why do we have so many problems?” What we should be thinking, in his view, is “why aren’t we ready with new trajectories for humankind?”
The old narrative
When Piccard sought to build a solar plane capable of travelling all the way around the world, manufacturers said he would never get enough energy from the sun to fly both day and night. “This is the paradigm of energy. We always think we need to produce more. Instead of being clever enough to be efficient, to save and not waste it,” he told the conference.
“The way we think is the way the world will develop,” he stressed. If we think only about producing more, that is where society will go. If we decide that what is important is financial results, or military dominance, or the environment, then that is the direction humankind will move in. “Each of us has the responsibility. Ask yourself: What do I care for? What is my vision?”
The environment, Piccard suggested, is one area where a paradigm shift is clearly needed. “For the last 50 years, ecologists have been telling us that protecting the environment is very expensive, it will be sacrificial. We need to reduce our comfort, our mobility, economic growth. Is that attractive? I don’t think so. If it was, today we would not be in a situation where every year we have more CO2 emissions, more waste and pollution, more problems.” Even if the goal of protecting the environment was shown as absolutely crucial, the result is a failure, he said.
A new narrative
What if we try another narrative that makes protecting the environment exciting? “Understand that ecological solutions can be profitable because they save resources, consume less energy, and enable a circular economy.” They can be seen as investments with a return, not as mere costs. Protecting the environment “can be profitable, it can create jobs, it can be exciting, and at the same time it would save us in terms of climate change.”
Such a mindset makes possible what Piccard calls “qualitative growth”, as opposed to “growth that generates social chaos and illimited industrial growth that brings ecological disaster.” The idea is to grow “only the economy” by doing so in a way that reduces waste, pollution and inefficiency. “You create jobs and sustain the economy by replacing what is polluting.”
Making that approach the driver of ecological motivation and innovation could unite everyone, since it would be good for everyone – the economy, finance, industry, the ecology, the left and the right. “It’s not an idea, it’s a process. The politicians on the left and the right will agree because it’s good for the poor, the economy overall and the environment, while for industry it offers new business opportunities.”
It is key to bring diverse interest groups and stakeholders together like that to get past current conflicts that slow progress on sustainability. “United for a common goal, we would we enter into the type of pioneering spirit of exploration that our world needs today,” Piccard concluded.