The future and other small things: SXSW gets macro

I’ve spent the first couple of days at SXSW diving into some fairly micro topics. It’s been a wee bit hit and miss, as you’d expect, but fascinating nonetheless. Today, though, I’ve gone macro: Al Gore on “The Future”; Elon Musk on space travel, solar energy and the bid to save humanity; and perhaps most inspiring of all, Chinese-American entrepreneur Ping Fu on life under Mao and how her incredible personal story has made her into such a strong and successful innovator. Only at SXSW.

Gore is still a consummate politician, which is both impressive and off-putting in equal measure. His readiness to drop statistics into his conversation like he’s been up all night learning them is designed to give weight to his arguments, but we all know how you can manipulate statistics and we all know that every politician does it. So I wish he’d stop doing it.

He’s a brilliant thinker, though, and the “six drivers of global change” that form his new book manage not just to encapsulate and substantiate stuff you already know, but also to reframe some of the issues in a highly thought-provoking way. What many call Big Data, for example, he reframes as “the Global Mind”, which manages to capture both the threat and the opportunity pretty damn well; while the relentless pursuit of growth and addiction to GDP as our measure of progress he calls “Outgrowth” – a rather less ambiguous phrase and appropriately so. The book might just be worth a read (

Gore’s big theme remains the environment and this is a subject that Musk has invested fully in. The former PayPal founder is the man behind Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, Solar City, which makes solar roof panels, as well as SpaceX, the privately funded space travel business. As he puts it, the first two are addressing the most important challenges to sustaining life on Earth, while the third is dedicated to sustaining human life beyond the life of this planet. Who says no-one thinks big any more?

In truth, what’s most striking about Musk is his extraordinary drive and self-confidence. He doesn’t just run Tesla, he designs the cars; he isn’t just the CEO of SpaceX, he’s the CTO as well. When his “friend” Sir Richard Branson happened to drop into casual conversation that the grounding of Boeing 787s was costing him a lot of money, Musk offered to tell Boeing where they were going wrong. He also offered to help fix the problem that was making their lithium batteries on board a fire hazard. So far, Boeing hasn’t taken him up on this.

Clearly, it takes this level of self-confidence to sink your life’s savings into a project like SpaceX. I’m glad people like this exist and I’m slightly in awe; but I’m also quite glad I’m not one of his kids. While declaring himself a loving parent, Musk admitted that most of the time he spent with his five youngsters was (a) in the company of a nanny and (b) was time he also uses to attend to email. I know you’re supposed to be able to multi-task as a parent, but that’s just a tad ridiculous.

Parenting is something Ping Fu knows more about than most. As an eight year-old in Mao’s China, she was taken from her parents by the Red Guard and became a surrogate mother to her younger sister. The hardships she suffered growing up and her eventual decision to leave her homeland in her 20s, after falling foul of the authorities, are told in her autobiography, Bend Not Break (

Certainly, the tale she tells on stage is inspiring stuff. After studying software design, she mentored Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and eventually launched her own business, Geomagic. An early pioneer of 3D printing, she is an evangelist for this technology and even took to the stage wearing a pair of 3D printed shoes.

I love her definition of innovation as “imagination applied.” And, while I don’t pretend to understand it, I’m excited by her vision of a future in which product design is embedded in software code, “shipped” via the internet, and actually made locally – anytime, anywhere for anyone. This, I suspect, is just as important in the battle for sustainability as Musk’s activities and Gore’s campaigning.

John Owen is deputy chairman of Dare and is at SXSW this week

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