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Elon Musk: the 21st Century’s Change Catalyst?

November 1, 2015
Musk As a society, we like to talk about how much and how fast change is affecting us. For example, we’ve become overly enamored with the rapid advancements in consumer electronics over the past 20 years and social media during the past decade. Yet we’ve become collectively drooling, multi-tasking drones who are more concerned with the next iteration of Android and Apple devices, incapable of focusing on tasks one at a time or indepth reading, in contrast to scanning media headlines.

We tend to forget the many monumental change events that have occurred in the past, such as the huge impact of the introduction of the steam engine, electricity, atomic energy, the telegraph, the integrated circuit, and the combined introduction of the internal combustion engine and highways, the latter of which strongly influenced the expansion of cities to create what became known as suburbs.

And we forget that major change comes slowly, and often with huge resistance from citizens. As much as innovators such as Steve Jobs, Marc Zuckerberg and Reid Garrett (co-founder of LinkedIn) deserve admiration for their accomplishments, they pale in comparison to the above-noted inventions, not to mention other 20th century ones such as the polio vaccines (Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin), the first manned and motored airplane (the Wright brothers), and the radio (Gugliemo Marconi).

In short, these major inventions and innovations helped propel society forward in the 19th and 20th Centuries, generating new wealth for citizens and vastly improving their standards of living.

Earth Let’s reflect for a moment on the mess that planet Earth is in:

• Rising sea levels due to climate warming (press delete on the rantings from America’s Republican right-wing fringe)
• Disgusting air and water pollution in emerging economies (most notably China)
• Technological advances (eg, hydraulic fracturing) in extracting yet more oil and natural gas from once impossible to access reserves (thus prolonging our dependence on dirty fuel sources)
• Government paralysis on how to store spent nuclear fuel
• Inadequate public and private sector investments in renewable energies (the consequence of substantial continued subsidies to the non-renewable energy industry)

Despite these huge problems, and respecting the efforts of those individuals diligently working on finding solutions, society is largely ignoring them. Contemporary innovators who are in the public eye (e.g., Tim Cook of Apple and Travis Kalanick of Uber) are effectively consumer innovators, and not societal-shifting change agents, as were people like Marconi, Sabin and Orville Wright.

Fortunately one guy gets it.

His name is Elon Musk.

And he’s got big plans for the human race.

In addition to his well-known achievements in creating Zip2 (sold for $305 million to Compact), co-founding Pay Pal (for which he received $165 million from its $1.5 billion sale), Tesla Motors and Solar City, Musk’s biggest and most complex project is SpaceX. His vision to colonize Mars may be met with cynicism by some and doubt by others, but he’s totally focused to make it happen around 2026.

Musk’s acute concern for the future of humanity and its survival, combined with reducing society’s carbon footprint on the planet, has oriented his life’s work towards renewal technologies. With SpaceX, his engineers are working diligently on developing reusable rockets, in contrast to disposable ones used by NASA in the past and Russia.

Musk 2 This is big stuff, when placed alongside such news-friendly topics as social media developments, new Apple products or Uber. Musk’s vision to have recharging stations across the U.S. for his electric cars, Solar City’s huge battery farm, and the technological down-stream benefits from SpaceX will exert major positive gains for society and the planet. In short, these are macro events from a planetary perspective, compared to the more micro developments we’ve witnessed over the past two decades.

True societal change catalysts think big and in the long-term. They enlist a devoted group of followers by enrolling them in their vision. Sure, Steve Jobs of Apple had such a devoted followership, despite his well-known abusive practices on employees. Elon Musk is no choir boy either, known for his demanding management approach.

However, to achieve what’s regarded as the impossible, something that has and continues to plague Elon Musk by his critics, means an out-of-the-box management style–whether you like it or not. Of credit to Musk is his all-in approach: he’s been on the edge of bankruptcy at times but has always persevered. His 100 percent commitment to his cause and vision continues to propel him forward. Indeed, his life style is highly unorthodox, in contrast to other billionaires who build Taj Mahals as symbols of their power and wealth.

Elon Musk comes across as a human being, who, despite his warts, truly wants to effect very significant, positive change on planet Earth. What’s so fascinating is that he has accomplished so much in such a short time period. The next 10 years should prove to be a fascinating time as we watch how new technological developments benefit society.

The airplane stays up because it doesn’t have the time to fall.

– Orville Wright

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