Do we need more moonshots?


Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. The specter of Russia taking the lead in space exploration shocked Americans and forced the science and policy communities to confront a new threat to U.S. leadership and prestige. It also set in motion what became the original “moonshot” — President Kennedy’s challenge to the country to put a man on the moon within the decade.

Today, people talk about how we need a moonshot for…just about everything. We have moonshots for climate change. Moonshots for cancer. Even moonshots for specific scientific disciplines. The term “moonshot” has been applied so widely, we seem to have lost sight of just what a moonshot is and why we might need one.

So let’s try to define it. Reflecting again on the original moonshot, I see three significant characteristics.

A moonshot is unambiguous. It requires clarity of purpose, a defined timeframe, and measurable criteria. It’s not squishy. It’s not vague. Its success or failure can be readily understood by anyone.

However, with a moonshot, success is not guaranteed. A moonshot is ambitious. And risky. A moonshot is something that hasn’t been done before, and it may not be immediately apparent how it can be done at all. A moonshot is not simply the next obvious step from where we are today. It requires patience and resources and acceptance that there will be failures along the way.

And yet, despite the risk, a moonshot also has an ineffable quality that shifts our perspective and moves us to act. A moonshot requires leadership and vision, but achieves success not merely in the articulation of a goal, but through its execution. A moonshot inspires excellence and draws upon the best within us and within humanity.

I tend to think today’s overuse of the term “moonshot” is treacherous. If everything is a moonshot, then nothing is. “Moonshots” that aren’t really moonshots inevitably become disappointments. These, in turn, diminish the ability of leaders to articulate real moonshots that inspire the public, enable action, and build institutions that can accomplish great things.

In a world that faces diverse and complex problems, I don’t think we can say “no, we don’t need more moonshots.” To do so would suggest we should turn inward, in defiance of our nature as explorers, rather than look outward.

But do we need a moonshot for everything? Probably not. A decade ago, I might have said we needed a moonshot for energy. But improvements in so many clean energy technologies — including exponential progress on technical performance and economics that continues today — is a strong argument against the need for moonshot-style transformation in the sector.

Still, I like to think about how the future might be different if we did have an energy moonshot. An idea that, when you heard about it, you were spellbound — and then driven to act. Something that, like the original moonshot, would inspire generations to imagine not just the next best thing, but something entirely new.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

How to pick winners and losers


Last week I was deep in fossil fuel country, sitting in the back of the room at an energy conference at 8:00 a.m. As I desperately wished my third cup of coffee would clear the fogginess of jet lag and the mental exhaustion of leading a workshop the day before, I heard the first presenter say something better than the strongest espresso.

It was this: “Our investments in R&D have not reached their full potential because of the Valley of Death, and we need to have the political will to try to pick some winners.”

A tired refrain in the world of energy innovation is that “we shouldn’t pick winners and losers.” It began as an argument for why government should keep its focus on basic research and let the market determine the rest. Over the years, I always grimaced when I heard the phrase touted even by some of the strongest supporters of government-funded R&D.

The problem? The phrase itself inherently contradicts how innovation happens. I sometimes joke that if we already knew what solutions would work, we could “pick winners, not losers.” But the truth is, we don’t already know. We can’t.

We can hypothesize, make educated guesses, analyze data, and extrapolate about the future. These are valuable, and they can guide what technologies the government or the private sector chooses to support. But they won’t give us the answers we need without something else: experimentation.

A popular phrase used by Silicon Valley types is “fail fast, fail often.” Sometimes this idea is taken to the extreme and can lead to rash or impatient investments. But it’s also the most effective pathway to innovation.

When you’re trying something new, there will always be more losers than winners — ideas that don’t work, missteps, diversions, distractions, and choices that in retrospect were just plain wrong. But most of the time, we can’t know the difference between a loser and a winner until we test it out. Until we try. Until we pick.

To solve technical problems, to prove a new business model, to drive change through policy, you have to do something that might feel uncomfortable or risky. Say your idea out loud. Act, even if you’re not sure how. Start.

When you try and fail, you learn things, often critical things that inform the next step. And the step after that. And the step after that.

I have also seen there can be extra magic in experimentation if it’s done a certain way. If you experiment publicly, you can inspire and empower others to try new things too. If you do it collaboratively, you create a community around a common goal that can have exponentially more impact than you might alone.

The nature of innovating — whether in technology, business, policy, or life — requires accepting the risk of failure and the opportunity to learn. The alternative — staying paralyzed by the false dilemma of picking winners and losers — means being stuck in the Valley of Death forever.

This post originally appeared on Medium.