Stories – People & Planet

People & Planet – Expert view

Breaking the rules, for a better future.

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About Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand Piccard is a psychiatrist and adventurer. Together with Brian Jones, in 1999 he became the first to fly around the planet in a balloon. In 2015 to 2016, with co-pilot André Borschberg, Piccard circumnavigated the world in a solar-powered airplane, the Solar Impulse. Bertrand Piccard has been married since 1989 to Michèle Piccard, with whom he has three grown daughters. His non-profit Solar Impulse Foundation has now identified and promoted 1,450 sustainable technologies and recognized them with the “Solar Impulse Efficient Solution” label.

On April 21, 2016, Bertrand Piccard is about to embark on perhaps his most daring exploit: a three-day non-stop flight leg across the Pacific in the cockpit of his solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse. He writes one last text message to his family and promptly hears back from his three daughters: “Long live the spirit of exploration!”

Piccard’s grandfather, the experimental physicist Auguste Piccard, had already been a legend in his own time. In 1931, he became the first human to enter the stratosphere, reaching an altitude of 15,781 meters in a hot-air balloon. He was immortalized by the famous comic artist Hergé in the character of Professor Calculus in Tintin. And then there was Bertrand Piccard’s father, Jacques, who in 1960 together with a naval lieutenant descended to the lowest point on earth, diving to the bottom of the Mariana Trench at 10,916 meters below sea level in a submersible designed by the Piccards.

Curiosity is not an end in itself

Jules Vernes would have found kindred spirits in this family. Yet its adventures and records were never an aim in themselves. Every experience at the extremes had a substantive goal: to better understand the world and make it a better place. Thus, in the stratosphere, Auguste Piccard succeeded in experimentally proving part of the theory of relativity; his scientific partner in this experiment was one Albert Einstein. Jacques Piccard, in turn, was able to show through his dive that there are currents even in the deep sea – and warned against dumping radioactive waste there. As for the third Piccard: With all his projects, he has sought to create impetus for a more sustainable future. Hence the name of the sunlight-powered Solar Impulse, the plane he took turns piloting around the world with André Borschberg. “You fly silently, conscious of the sun giving you its energy, and you could keep flying forever without releasing a gram of CO2,” recounts Bertrand Piccard. “It felt as if I were flying through the future.”

“Adventure in the 21st century consists of using a pioneering spirit to develop the quality of life that present and future generations have a right to expect.”

In the lead role: new technologies

While for Piccard’s forefathers, technologies were primarily means to an end, for him they play the starring role. To Piccard they are the key to a sustainable future, and at the same time a kind of peacemaker between the economy, people and the environment. While ecological movements have been proclaiming for half a century that humankind and economies must rein themselves in to protect the environment, Piccard believes that the seemingly conflicting interests can be reconciled – through sustainable technologies. That is why, with his Solar Impulse Foundation, he is promoting a current total of 1,450 eco-friendly technology solutions worldwide. “We cannot protect the environment by shrinking the economy,” he says.

Rules are only an expression of our time

However, Piccard knows from experience how difficult it is to establish new technologies. “I still have calculations from the aerospace industry intended to prove to me by all the rules of physics that Solar Impulse could not be built,” relates Piccard. The experts told him the solar aircraft would turn out too big and heavy. In the end, Piccard and Borschberg found a shipyard that built the large body parts for Solar Impulse. “Many people forget that rules are only an expression of our time,” asserts Bertrand Piccard. By contrast, he says, inquisitive researchers are never satisfied with the status quo and want to move boundaries to achieve better things.

“It’s always just us humans, our rules and routines, that limit our curiosity.”

Curiosity as the key to entrepreneurial success

All spirit of inquiry has its origins in childhood, as children are naturally inquisitive. He himself, says Piccard, was a hard pupil for his teachers to manage. “I did not accept any rules that I did not understand for myself.” He always overflowed with questions and curiosity. Unfortunately, he says, curiosity is often stifled in children by parents and teachers, and later discouraged by supervisors at work. In actuality, Piccard believes, a lively curiosity is crucial not only to personal happiness but also to corporate success. For him, every job has the potential to become a personal adventure, provided that one constantly questions one’s tasks and that this is tolerated. “It’s a question of our inner attitude, but naturally also a matter of the organizational culture,” he says. He does not believe the desire to know has any natural limits. “It’s always just us humans, our rules and routines, that limit our curiosity.”

Venturing into new dimensions

Companies should therefore encourage employees to take risks, critically question rules, think outside the box and always explore new perspectives. Once again Piccard finds an analogy in his adventures – this time in balloon flight. The pilot of a hot-air or gas balloon can directly control only its altitude – the vertical dimension – but not the horizontal direction of flight. This means that a balloonist who wants to reach a specific destination or even – as Piccard did in 1999 – circumnavigate the Earth, must always find the right winds by climbing or descending along the vertical axis. A successful balloon flight thus requires thinking and moving in multiple dimensions – an insight that also holds lessons for technology firms. Instead of plodding along at a single level and hoping for fair winds, a company that is to succeed must continually explore new dimensions with curiosity and an investigative spirit in order to advance in the desired direction.