The aviators building a better future

A number of the talks this week at Cannes Lions will center on how creativity means changing the way people think, or the way they interact with the rest of the world. But in the case of Dr Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borscheberg, creativity means changing the world itself. In a seminar chaired by FutureBrand’s Christopher Nurko, Piccard and Borscheberg answer the question: in a world that has been reliant on fossil fuels for the last century, is it possible to fly without them? And if that is possible, what else can be achieved?

Solar Impulse 2, a “perpetual endurance” plane fuelled entirely by the sun’s rays, made its inaugural flight just two weeks ago. Next year, Piccard and Borscheberg intend to fly Solar Impulse 2 around the world. You could say reaching for the sky is in Piccard’s blood; his grandfather was the famous physicist Auguste Piccard, who designed a hydrogen balloon which could carry him ten miles up in order to study the stratosphere.

Borscheberg and Piccard first approached plane manufacturers with this idea over ten years ago and were told it was impossible. In order for the plane to work, it needed wings the breadth of a jumbo jet; aviation specialists wouldn’t take it seriously. “Solar Impulse felt a little like Dumbo at the beginning,” says Piccard. “An elephant with giant ears, who kept getting told no.”

Of course, Borscheberg and Piccard are quick to point out that engineers were also skeptical all the way back in 1903, when the very first airplane flight took place.  “The world is always trying to fight for new ideas,” says Piccard, “when the ideas are already here! We’re prisoners of our habits and old ways of thinking.”

Quite purposefully, Piccard and Borscheberg announced their plans before they had either funding or technology. The subsequent coverage on news networks like CNN meant that they were “condemned to succeed,” with pressure being their greatest motivator. “A lot of people believe we have no doubts,” says Piccard, “when the truth is, every day we have doubts, every day we have problems without solutions. But this is what inspires the creativity and unity of the team.”

Borscheberg and Piccard now have a year’s work ahead of them before their global flight, but they are the first to admit they are in no great hurry. “The process of getting there is the most interesting,” says Borscheberg. “The point where you’re satisfied—that is the danger zone.”

Solar Impulse has the potential to be a game-changer in clean energy; Piccard and Borscheberg aren’t lobbyists or politicians, they’re scientists and engineers who believe everyone has a stake in the environment, and therefore everyone should have a say. For years, Piccard says, protecting the environment was boring and expensive. In the short term, people are comfortable, wealthy and safe, and so they continue to burn crude oil, too self-interested and self-satisfied to think about the long term.

Borscheberg and Piccard believe that we could halve humanity’s current energy consumption if we used technologies that already exist. Instead, this world-changing tech remains the remit of universities and start-ups, with no real world impact. “This isn’t just about fighting CO2 emissions,” says Borscheberg, “but creating a better world. Solar Impulse is not a green project; it’s a clean project… We have developed the most energy efficient plane ever; if we can do that on a plane, it can be done on the ground, in people’s homes.”

That is why Solar Impulse’s 2015 flight is much more than simply an aviation record. “The real story will begin after the flight,” says Piccard. “People will realize they can do the same, they can adapt to the new world. We want to reach as many people as possible with this project.”

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