Rethinking ‘normal’ in technology: Q&A with Justin Hall-Tipping

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On stage at TED Global 2011 Justin Hall-Tipping set forth a bold agenda for funding innovation – one that makes room for radical changes and complete re-thinking of what’s possible. TED’s Ben Lillie tracked him down to follow up on the process of innovation, and his plans for the future.

You made this point that we often get stuck on this idea of what normal is. Do you think that really impedes our sense of progress? If we have too strong a sense of what normal is, or if we have a normal thing available — like the example of if we have serviceable solar cells — does the fact that we have those available keep us from reaching further and making them better?

Yes, I think it does. I think this sense of normal is something that we all grow up with and that we live. What you know is what shows up to you as normal. And I think it then dictates a large part of how you think.

If you look back in history with the advent of the automobile, at that time, everybody was moving around either by walking or on horses. And when the automobile came out, somebody said the theoretical maximum speed an automobile can go is 25 miles an hour, and any speed above 25 miles an hour, the human body is literally going to shake apart. And that was the limiter. Well, nobody had driven a car faster than 25 miles per hour so nobody knew. And so some prognosticator comes out and says that, and that is accepted as normal. And that’s a perfect illustration of the problems that we face, which is when you’re given something new, you instantly default to what you know. And I translate the new into what I know. And I can’t actually take it for what it might be.

And I think your parallel to the solar cell is the same way. I’m using the solar cell as a frame of reference to the boiler in my basement, to power X amount of power for my house. But the solar cell may be ultimately completely different from anything that we’ve known to date.

Is there a sense in that that the biggest challenge really is learning to live with change and understanding that change is a normal part of our life?

Yes. And of course, what they say is you don’t make change until there’s real pain, and the pain of staying is more than the pain of changing. And you can translate pain into whatever it is, either personally, resources, financially, whatever you want. But people have this tendency to sit until the cost of sitting is too much versus the cost of changing or moving.

Do you see a way of getting past that, of us getting to the point where we’re so used to change that we actually become quite good at it?

Well I think over time we’re doing it. If you look at us as a race comparatively over however many hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been around, the speed with which we embrace things is changing on us. What our grandparents did, to what our parents did, to what we do, to what our children are doing are night and day difference. Not only in what they do, but what they accept as okay, are fundamentally different just over four generations. So yes, I think we do it better, but I still think we face this issue of we can’t imagine anything other than the status quo or status quo with a bit, with these speed limits that are artificially imposed. And then suddenly somebody comes along that says, “Well why do you think that way? That speed limit is no longer in effect.”

And so I’m in the process of saying — and why Nanoholdings was built – just because everybody else says it’s a certain way and the speed limits are such and such, what if it’s not the case? And maybe put jigsaw pieces together such that the picture that emerges is something that radically changes everything that we think and do and how we live. And that innovation is going to come, not equally distributed all over the world, it’s going to come from select people in institutions that can think in these terms, where there’s no real penalty for failure. Which is why we go to universities, one of the greatest institutions in the world, where people are not penalized for being wrong. Learning, huge amounts of learning, comes in the place of being wrong.

Having come out of that environment, that’s a little surprising of a statement. There’s this tremendous pressure to publish results and to make them not big leaps. At least that’s the complaint of the people in academia that I know, that most of the progress still happens in these very small steps.

I agree in a large part to what you say, and I am saying what I say in comparison to corporations. Because inside corporations, what I have got the sense of is, when science is being done, there are a lot of old processes and protocols where, “No we tried that five years ago. It doesn’t work. We’re going in this direction, because we’ve got to get a product out by this date” that in some sense shrinks down the edge of the envelope of what is possible. It is that blue sky time that I think, in a university environment, is a special place.

You showed an amazing idea for generating power from a pair of transparent films. How many pieces away are you from having a functional power generator?

I would say, from our perspective – now I’m not talking about mass-market – we’re within a couple of years of having all those pieces together. Because enough of them are working together by themselves that, unless there’s something that none of us know about – which I don’t think that’s going to crop up – I think you already know how it all goes together. There’s enough empirical evidence that tells you that.

And once they’re working, the idea is that there’s enough power available that – how much energy are we talking about generating here? Is this orders of magnitude more than we have?

That’s a great question. Because, again, I think we’re thinking in terms of a solar cell. And so what the world has taught us in solar cells is: I’m going to go pay X, and it’s going to sit on my roof, and it’s got to have this footprint, and the total install cost per house is 50 to 100 thousand bucks with inverters and the whole bit. So now you’re thinking in terms of, well for a house then, my payback is roughly 20 years. And then everybody says, well, hang back. My average ownership of the home before I move, this current decade not withstanding, is, say, five years. Why am I bothering to put a solar cell on my house? Because it’s got a 20 year payback, and I’m only here for five years. That’s the kind of thinking that I think goes on in people’s minds.

So I say, “Well okay, what would you want to be able to do?” One, you drive it from a price point, I need to add something that is essentially Saran Wrap that would go on a window. It needs to be applied as easily as that. And maybe it only needs to last three years, because it’s inside the window, stuck on, and I can rip it off and put another one on.. Because if it’s flexible, I can put it on any surface. And if I don’t have to make it last 30 years outside, maybe I have a different business proposition entirely.

What you’re describing to me sounds like something that would provide the energy requirements of a house if you applied it to the house, or something like that. But we’re not talking about an order of magnitude more, where all of a sudden we have more energy than we know what to do with.

No, but again, I think you’re right in that place, but then it does open up your mind to saying, “Well hang about, but what if I’m not there? What do I do with that energy? I mean, I’m generating it on my window.” That electron, in some sense, has been freed from the traditional distribution mechanism. Well where have we heard that story before? You’ve heard that whereby the physical unit of something was released from its underlying distribution mechanism – we’ve seen that in telephony; we’ve seen that in computers; you’ve seen that in media; you’ve seen that in music. And look at what happened to every single one of those industries when the distribution mechanism, or whatever it was, was released and the ownership of the medium became individual.

So the hope is this is going to be a truly disruptive innovation, that this will change completely how we view energy?

Well for 200 years, we as a society have thought of our energy as energy derived from  combustion. And the only question that I ask is, and how’s it doing for us? Not so great. The culmination of humanity’s intellect of many hundreds of thousands of years when presented with this problem of “how do we stay warm in winter?” is basically to burn our environment.

If you release the constraint of “I don’t have to burn everything, and is there a better way?” you’re already seeing inklings of it that, yes there is, you actually can do this differently. That if we try and copy nature – which seems to be what we all ought to do, because when we do it we’re a lot smarter – nature does energy by chemical transformation. They don’t do it by burning. So you’re only changing what shows up into something that’s usable. And so I think if you want to go look for answers, you look for a whole bunch of answers in places that doesn’t involve just burning that damn thing.

When you had this transformation in the music industry, there was an enormous push back from the vested interests. Do you see something similar happening here?

Well yes, I don’t see how you could sit there – just the sort of logical part of me says, whenever anything in society is very, very different, you do get almost everybody saying, “Hang about. That’s different. It feels really uncomfortable. And I don’t like that” as your first inclination. We’re all creatures of habit. And so yes, you saw it in the music industry. And the vast majority of people said, “No.” And then Apple said, “Yes, and it’s 99 cents.” And everybody suddenly realized you can make a lot of money at 99 cents. And then 99 cents didn’t seem quite so bad.

So in the face of big change, there are some people that are way out on the edge of the bell-curve, which say, “Okay, change is good. How am I going to use this change to my advantage? How am I going to embrace it? How am I going to solve things?” And ultimately, if the change that you’re offering answers some very big issues, then I think you can get more people moving over very quickly.

So we’re about finding answers at Nanoholdings to the very big problems. Like energy — and for example water, we’re simply going to run out of fresh water. You better get answers in the timeline you’ve got, because the human body after five days starts to go into shock without water. So this is not optional. It’s only a question of when. And so we’re about finding those answers from the kind of creative minds that have the ability to deliver the solutions.

Do you have a sense of how to get past that?

Ultimately, I think that if you do things that are right, they find acceptance, because they are inherently right. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the job of an individual or the job of a company. I think it is a collective movement. And I think the way you get a sense of that is what you see our younger generation doing now. They’re a lot more socially conscious. Go back only seven months, and if I had told you prior to seven or eight months ago that you could take a pen to the countries in the Middle East and just tick off the dictatorships that were going to be eliminated – I obviously jumping to a vast generalization – but the use of social media to galvanize nations largely driven by young people, and I was going to tell you it’s going to start here, and it’s going to roll across North Africa, through the Middle East, heading out towards China, and I was going to say, “And this is what’s going to happen,” I think most people in the world would have said, “I don’t think so, Justin. You’re not quite right there.” And yet, the speed of change is dizzying.

So I choose to bet on the side of the next generation coming along seem to be a lot smarter than this generation and the previous generations as to what they think should happen with the world.