“Hate the status quo,” clean tech pioneer Piccard tells infrastructure leaders


Explorer and clean technology pioneer Bertrand Piccard highlights the imperative of thinking and doing differently at the Global Leadership Forum in Geneva.

At a leadership summit focused on dealing with the challenges of change against a background of established thinking and attitudes that too often militated against change, keynote speaker Bertrand Piccard offered a passionate avocation for thinking differently, being a disruptor and never accepting the status quo or those who say that things cannot be done.

Piccard has faced down the pessimists and naysayers throughout his work and adventures that have included flying around the world non-stop in a balloon and more recently in a solar plane without fuel. Calling Piccard and inspirational figure who is always willing to think outside the box hardly does him justice. And anyway, to think outside the box, you have to be in the box to begin with and Piccard is someone who clearly doesn’t do boxes!

Encouraging his audience to use their skills, knowledge and experience to take a pioneering approach to the future and the challenges they face, Piccard said that it was crucial not to be constrained by the established way of doing things as that limited solution development before you even started. “The future is not an extrapolation of the present – we have to learn to do and think in a different way,” he said. “Look at the history of exploration and it has all been pioneering. People have thought differently and discovered things. Really, we have to hate the status quo and be pioneers each time,” said Piccard.

Following his successful around-the-world flight in a solar-powered airplane, Bertrand and his Solar Impulse Foundation have succeeded in identifying more than a thousand solutions that can protect the environment in a financially profitable way. His stated aim now is to take these to governments and companies and help them to accelerate the transition towards a zero-carbon economy.

Clearly someone who doesn’t take no for an answer, Piccard’s approach, underpinned by a fundamental believe that there is always a better way of addressing a problem or challenge, is to keep moving forward and never to be bound by old thinking or ‘established’ opinion, especially when this had led the world into some of the very problems it is now trying to solve.

“Innovation comes through not just getting rid of an old idea but through having a new belief. When we are told that we can’t do something because it has never been done before we need to challenge and say, ‘maybe until now, but not from now on,’” said Piccard. “We cannot invent the world of tomorrow with today’s way of thinking. The future will be disruptive and demands that we follow suit,” he said.

That disruptive approach was clearly a key part of his success in his successful round-the-world solar powered plane flight. “After our successful balloon flight, we wanted to see if it was possible to fly a plane round the world with no fuel, using just solar power and flying at night not just during the day,” he said. Piccard and his team had to deal with old thinking around not being able to use solar power when the sun is not shining. His response? “Why not? It’s just a matter of storing the energy and using it later. So, we had to make an abnormal aeroplane with a 72-metre wingspan with the power of a scooter and we could fly it,” he explained.

Piccard hit further challenges when he went back to the aviation industry with his plans and asked whether they could build his solar plane. Still the answer was no, with Piccard being told that what he wanted to do was impossible. What he ended up doing was, therefore, according to established thinking, impossible. Yet, what he and his team did was not only possible, but he also used the experience to address other ‘impossible’ challenges, especially in the area of environmental change and climate action.

Piccard exuded inspiration during his hour on stage at the summit in Geneva, encouraging his audience to address challenges by harnessing the potential of new and fresh thinking and also the limitless potential of knowledgeable and passionate people. “If you are in a difficult project, the people you are working with are talented and pioneering, so use the problem and challenge you face to think differently and make change. If we don’t know something is impossible, we lose that filter that holds us back,” he said.

Turning to the environment and the challenge of climate change, Piccard cautioned infrastructure leaders not to be constrained by their current level of knowledge. “It’s dangerous to focus on only what we know. Today, with the climate, energy and the environment we have to do something differently. What we have done to date has not and is not working so we have to do differently. And we have to try. “Remember, the worst is not to fail, the worst is not to try – and only by trying will we discover what works the best,” he said.

Piccard’s audience were enraptured by his words and also by the way he said them. His ability to think in a different way about how to address problems and challenges inspired and enthused in equal measure. “I try to motivate and not convince people as that way you are making an alliance with that part of someone who really wants to do things better,” Piccard explained.

World will never change unless we question the status quo

He urged his audience to be confidence and recognise that they had the knowledge and skills to make change happen, but they had to continuously question the status quo. “The world will never change unless we involve the innovators and experts who will question and say: ‘How can we do things differently?’” said Piccard.

Concluding his address, he said that with their knowledge and knowhow infrastructure leaders were in a unique position when it came to making the case for change. “You need to leverage that experience and skill and exploit that advantage to persuade politicians to do things differently. We are obliged to be more active and to make the economy more profitable, industry more efficient and to be better for the environment. So, be part of this fantastic change that we need to see as soon as possible,” Piccard said.