High Flying Above The Walls.
Conversation with Bertrand Piccard, founder of Solar Impulse and the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions.
En français sur UP’ Magazine.
Bertrand Piccard was invited to speak at Movin’On, a global event on sustainable mobility held last June in Montreal and produced by Michelin in partnership with C2 Montreal. The topic of his talk was: “How to achieve the impossible, how to invent, how to innovate, how to create, how to get out of one’s comfort zone, how to get rid of one’s certitudes and beliefs in order to be free to think about new ways forward.”
Bertrand is the founder and pilot of Solar Impulse, the first round-the-world solar flight. We had previously met in Paris during the COP21 negotiations on climate change mitigation in 2015.
Together, we listened to a speech by Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist who was the first female chief scientist of NAOO. In 1988, Sylvia Earle was named “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine. She reminded us of this:
“Resentment won’t serve us. We need to be grateful for the fossil fuel economy. Humanity made progress and developed so far thanks to the oil, gas and coal industries. When we embarked on the fossil fuel journey, we were not aware of the externalities. But now, we know. The time has come for humanity to move beyond fossil fuel”.
Bertrand was only halfway through his Solar Impulse challenge, and the outcome of COP21 was uncertain.
The Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation was adopted by consensus by 196 countries on December 12, 2015. Bertrand and his partner André Borschberg completed their flight around the world on July 26, 2016. Later that year, Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States with a promise to build a wall between Mexico and the USA. On June 1st, he announced that the USA would cease all participation in the Paris Agreement.
Below are some edited transcripts of our conversation, which started with an update on Solar Impulse but went far beyond.
Bertrand Piccard: “When we last met, it was before the success of the flight around the world with Solar Impulse. We were halfway through and it was quite a stressful moment. After having invested so much time and effort, we did not know if we would succeed. It’s nice to see you again after the success.”
Dominique Bel: “Likewise, Bertrand, it’s nice to see you again. In hindsight, it is inspiring to realize how you were able to communicate a sense of calm and confidence while you were in the midst of such a stressful challenge. What’s keeping you busy these days?”
BP: “The first step of the Solar Impulse project — going around the world with no fuel — is finished. Now, the second phase is on. I am launching the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, with a goal to connect all individuals, start-ups, companies, associations or organizations with ideas, processes, products or clean technologies that can protect the environment in a profitable way. In order to gain support by both the private and public sector, solutions must be profitable.”
DB: “What comes to mind as one of the major challenges of this new project?
BP: “We have to identify 1000 profitable solutions for the environment by the end of 2018. It’s a lot of work. I know they exist. Despite the fact that everybody speaks of problems, there are lots of solutions. This is what I want to show.”
DB: “Yes, time for solutions! I would like to ask you for advice about a project that is very dear to my heart. Donald Trump promised to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S.A. I recently joined the MADE collective (Mexican and American Designers and Engineers). MADE designed and proposed an alternative to the wall: Otra nation. Otra Nation made the headlines when it was submitted to both the American and Mexican government earlier in March.
Otra Nation is a regenerative territory open to citizens of both Mexico and the United States that is co-maintained by both governments. It is the worlds’ first continental bi-national socio-ecotone, with an expected economic output in the range of 1 trillion dollar.
Part of Otra Nation’s vision: a Hyperloop transportation network to link the Pacific coast to the Golf of Mexico, with links to major cities North and South. Distressed people cross borders illegally in order to escape poverty. Otra Nation tackles the issue at its roots and aims to become a hospitable and abundant territory thanks to renewable energy and regenerative agriculture.
Did you know about the Otra Nation proposal and what do you think of it?”
BP: “No, I did not know about this project. My immediate reaction when I see something that looks really difficult is to admire it. I hate the people who say: “it’s not possible, it doesn’t work, don’t try, it’s too difficult.”
So, first: congratulations! Follow your dreams and do it!
What comes to mind next is that the technology is already available. What we need for new technology to be implemented on a large scale is to push the state of mind far enough. This reminds me of the following experience: I once flew with a motor glider over the border between Mexico and California. On the Californian side it was completely green, with trees and agriculture. Cut sharp on the border, it was the desert on the Mexican side. Clearly, it’s a question of state of mind. Poverty in a country is the result of bad organization, bad politics, problems of corruption and lack of respect. We have to push hard to change the state of mind, and must not believe that when we have a beautiful dream, everybody has the spirit to fulfil it. Otherwise, it would also be green on the Mexican side of the Californian border.”
DB: “What advice would you share with Otra Nation?”
BP: “First, it’s important to be clear on your business model. Is it an investment with promising returns for investors? Or is it a project for the greater good that will benefit sponsors because of its positive message, its intrinsic qualities and the values it promotes? Once you have your answer, you’ll know quite well in which direction to go. With Solar Impulse it was very clear that we were not looking for venture capital, because we were not going to sell solar airplanes. I looked for sponsors and partners and I raised 170 million US dollars in a few months.
Otra Nation reminds me of the Swiss Metro project: a tunnel between Geneva and Lausanne with a train moving through a vacuum at speeds allowing to travel 60 km within a few minutes. In the end, the project was never built. I think the mistake was to plan to build the tunnel between Lausanne and Geneva, in the French speaking part of Switzerland. The French speaking part of Switzerland is very innovative, but it is not where the money is. The money is in the German part of Switzerland. Had the promoters proposed to build the Swiss Metro between Zurich and Basel, or between Zurich and Bern, they would have probably raised the financing.
Again: congratulations for Otra Nation. Let me invite the MADE collective to join the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions!”
DB: “On behalf of Otra Nation: thank you for the invitation! This is quite a vote of confidence. Count us in, Bertrand!
Solar Impulse and Otra Nation are adventures into the unknown.
How transformed does one come back from an adventure into the unknown? Following your first Solar Impulse flight, did you land as a different person than when you took off?”
BP: “When I landed I always had the impression to fall back in the past. Because flying with Solar Impulse with no fuel, no noise, no pollution gives you the impression that you are in a science fiction story. It gives you the impression that you are already in the future. This is wrong: we are in the present. Solar Impulse is what technology can do today. It is the rest of the world that is in the past. I would say that every landing was sad. It was really sad to return to the world of combustion engines, waste of energy, waste of natural resources, lack of respect, corruption and bad governance. It was sad each and every time, because when you are flying like André and I did, you have the impression the world could be a beautiful place.”
DB: “Indeed our human world could become a beautiful place on this planet if it was shared in harmony with other beings. People sense the need to reconnect with passion, love and purpose. What inspires me the most when I listen to you, Bertrand, is how much you seem to love what you do. What do you love so much about what you do?”
BP: “I love to step into the unknown. I love to do things nobody has ever dared to do and to show that the impossible is only in their head, not in reality. What is fantastic is to get rid of all beliefs that keep you prisoner of the past, so as to step into the future with new strategies and ways of thinking. This is so fascinating. This, I love.”
DB: “What advice would you give to young adults who are going to face such a troubled world?”
BP: “I would tell them to identify what they have learnt and what they believe, and then to try something else. Because our certainties — what we believe and what we have learnt to believe — are terrible handicaps for creativity and for performance. Beliefs keep you prisoner of the past and prevent you from finding new ways of thinking. We become prisoners of old paradigms and don’t learn how to change them.”
DB: “It’s now time for your talk at Movin’On. Before I let you go, as Steve Jobs would put it, “one more thing”: you are both inspired and inspiring. What’s that major event in your life that made you break through to that sense of possibility?”
BP: “When I was between 10 and 12 years old I was living with my family in Florida. It was during the American space program, between 1968 and 1970. I met Charles Lindbergh and most of the American astronauts and explorers. I met lots of people who showed me how fascinating it was to explore life. I witnessed the launch of Apollo 11 and still have, today, a vivid memory of that moment in time when I said to myself: this is the type of life I want to live.
What inspired me and set me in motion was meeting extraordinary people. People who did not remain in their comfort zone, who did not remain within the boundaries of old paradigms and who did things that nobody thought were possible to do. The most inspiring individuals I met were of course the explorers and the astronauts. But I also met inspiring people who were on a spiritual or a personal development path, in psychiatry, in psychotherapy or in politics.
I believe in the spiritual family: people who are on the same wavelength, with the same frequency of energy. They recognize each other immediately and don’t need long conversations to understand that they look for the same things in life on earth.”
Information and videos are available on Movin’On video channel.