Private enterprise is offering big rewards for the next, big, disruptive thing.
By John Elkington
In treasure maps, X was said to mark the spot where the pirate loot had been buried. But there are other reasons why X has long teased my imagination.
When I was a child learning the alphabet, the letters A, B, C and (just maybe) D were the most memorable. That said, the initial letters of my names were impressed upon me by various folk—and X, Y and Z always stood out, like Uranus, Neptune and Pluto among our solar system’s planets—the last (and so most mysterious) in a sequence.
The X Challenges
Later, as the New Economy erupted into popular consciousness, other letters pushed to the forefront of our minds, including the lower case ‘e’ and ‘i’ used for online tools and products. Now, such is the pace of evolution, X, once mainly a label for mini-submarines, medical screening equipment and adult films, is muscling its way into the technology and business media as it becomes indelibly linked with wildly ambitious initiatives like The X PRIZE Foundation, Google X, Solve for X and SpaceX.
But where exactly did this use of the 24th letter in the alphabet originate?
Anyone who exercises regularly may think they have the answer, knowing the ‘X’ position. This involves your limbs stretching out like those of the human figure in Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic drawing of Vitruvian Man to touch a surrounding circle. Still, this doesn’t seem to have been the source of the new stretch symbolism of X.
No, if you want to know where this new use of ‘X’ came from, a good place to start is a short TED speech by Terry Moore, who heads the New York-based Radius Foundation. The simple answer, he recalled last year, is that we can thank the Persians, Arabs and Turks for the early development of algebra, in which the letter ‘x’ stands for a variable whose value is unknown — and yet can be discovered with the right mindset and tools.
So, by extension, X now stands for a range of economic, social and environmental “Grand Challenges” that our species must tackle successfully if it is to get through this century in reasonably good order.
The Ansari X Prize
The first champion of this X agenda I came across was the X PRIZE Foundation. I first heard of it when Burt Rattan scooped the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for sending SpaceShipOne almost out into space in 2004, technology that Sir Richard Branson then embraced for his Virgin Galactic initiative.
The idea behind the Prize is to “bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, thereby inspiring the formation of new industries and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck due to existing failures or a commonly held belief that a solution is not possible.” The X PRIZE Foundation conducts competitions in five areas: education; global development; energy and environment; life sciences; and exploration.
Much more secretive is the Google X Lab, also known as Google X, a facility run by Google. Work is reportedly under way there on a range of projects, ranging from driverless cars and augmented reality glasses through to space elevator technology. And, very likely, those are only the visible tip of a larger iceberg of stretch innovation being pushed forward by Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin.
Google and The X PRIZE overlap with the Google Lunar X PRIZE, the largest incentive prize of all time. A total of $30 million in prizes is being offered to the first privately-funded teams to “safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth.” All teams entering must be at least 90 percent privately funded, though commercially reasonable sales to government customers are allowed.
Currently, 25 teams around the world are fundraising, mission planning, and building robots in a new race to the Moon. Entrants have until the end of 2015 to get to the Moon, meet the prize objectives, and win the prize purses.
Then, on an even bigger scale, there is SpaceX, also headquartered in California like the X PRIZE Foundation and Google X. This firm was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla Motors — the makers of the world’s best-known electric sport cars and sedans. His simple SpaceX goal: to help “make the human race a multi-planetary species.”
The firm designs, manufactures, and launches the world's most advanced rockets and spacecraft — mainly its Falcon launch vehicles and Dragon spacecraft. Its technology seems to be poised to revolutionize access to space, sidestepping government to open up space to anyone with the will-and the money. Musk has even been quoted as saying he wants to retire on Mars.
The significant thing about SpaceX is that it designs and manufactures its own rockets and spacecraft. By its own account, it is “the only private company ever to return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit,” a feat which it first accomplished in 2010.
The company made history again in May 2012 when its Dragon spacecraft attached to the International Space Station, exchanged cargo payloads, and returned safely to Earth, something previously only accomplished by governments. In October last year, Dragon again successfully took cargo to and from the space station, in the first official cargo resupply mission for NASA.
The X-Men (and Women): Hope For Systemic Change
Years ago, I visited Ugarit in Syria, where an early alphabet originated. Its inventors had little idea of what it would eventually become. Nor can those stretching towards today’s X goals know what their efforts will lead to tomorrow, though their visions flash around the world in seconds. But the sheer ambition of this new breed of X-men – and women – is both exciting and encouraging at a time when disruptive, systemic change is so clearly needed.
To sum up, any real hope we might have of breaking through to more sustainable economies and societies now critically depends on the longer-term outcomes of today’s ‘X-rated’ innovation.