Co.Design

Can Elon Musk's Design Fiction Be Good For Innovation?

Hyperloop isn’t real and probably never will be. That doesn’t mean it’s useless.

It must be hard to be a real innovator. On the one hand, the chattering classes (of which I admit to being a member) constantly moan about your ideas "not being big enough." On the other, when you dare to let a genuinely big idea slip out before you have every possible contingency already accounted for, we chatterers respond with cheap cynicism or knee-jerk mockery. (Me: guilty.) Yesterday, Elon Musk revealed a "plan" for a futuristic mass-transit line between Los Angeles and San Francisco called Hyperloop. Is it breaking news? Is it a valid plan? Is it an epic bit of trolling?

The trouble with engaging with Musk’s document in any of those terms is that it will inevitably disappoint, and that disappointment will probably make you angry. But if you consider Hyperloop as a piece of design fiction—that is, an aspirational, exploratory "what if" creatively worked out to a degree greater than a bar-room brain fart but less than a 100% municipally/politically/empirically validated research project—then it becomes possible to appreciate what it is, and not just grouse about what it isn’t.

The term "design fiction" has a bit of musty academicism to it, like an overwrought synonym for "self-indulgent art project." Yeah, sometimes that’s true. But design fictions can do real work, too. Consider concept cars: they’re not real, they’re never intended to go into production, they’re often wildly impractical or unrealistic. They have one purpose: to illuminate other ideas by association. To open up the adjacent possible. In a word, to inspire. And sometimes these "pointless" design fictions are powerful enough to turn entire companies around (see: Cadillac).

If Hyperloop is simply a "concept car" for public transportation—with all the pros, cons, flaws and flair that implies—then suddenly Elon Musk doesn’t have to be a dilettante, a charlatan, wasting our time, doing it wrong, failing us, hoodwinking us, disappointing us, boring us, or any other bad thing we chatterers can accuse him of. The standard of a well-wrought design fiction is at once lower and higher than an actual product or system. It doesn’t have to have all the holes plugged. It’s not meant to be production-ready. But it also should be radical, out-of-the-box, worthy of debate, larger-than-life. It should be singular, so as to spin off as many tangent, reactive ideas and conversations as possible. That’s the only way it can do any good. By that measure, Hyperloop just might be succeeding. (Too early to tell, though.)

What makes Elon Musk’s particular design fiction potentially more powerful, or at least more newsworthy, than, say, an unknown civil engineering student’s, isn’t that it’s "better." It’s that it’s vastly more visible and credible because of Musk’s resources, and, to be frank, his track record. (Tesla and SpaceX would have surely sounded just as ludicrous on paper a decade ago as Hyperloop does now.) Sure, Hyperloop isn’t a fully worked out "X" project like Google’s Project Loon, nor is it a vast humanitarian endeavor like Bill Gates’s malaria efforts. It’s one powerful guy’s "what if" idea about how something could be better, or at least different. That’s it. Yes, ideas are cheap. But where else are we supposed to start?

[Read Hyperloop Alpha in PDF]

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7 Comments

  • LintFilter

    On
    the macro-level, I agree with Zanzibarjoe. We need to push forward with this
    type of innovation. I agree completely with the author of this article—where else
    are we supposed to start? This type of design fiction is exactly what society (regularly)
    needs to output innovation. Now, if we could only get Mr. Musk and other
    incredibly talented (and wealthy) innovators and entrepreneurs (Gates, Bezos,
    etc…) to say, “F@!k it, let’s do this!” and to just dedicate themselves
    wholeheartedly. I certainly would if I had the money! All I have right now is
    my voting power. Hope in the future that’ll count for something.   

  • LintFilter

    On the macro-level, I agree with
    Zanzibarjoe. We need to push forward with this type of innovation. I agree completely
    with the author of this article—where else are we supposed to start? This type
    of design fiction is exactly what society (regularly) needs to output
    innovation. Now, if we could only get Mr. Musk and other incredibly talented
    (and wealthy) innovators and entrepreneurs (Gates, Bezos, etc…) to say, “F@!k
    it, let’s do this!” and to just dedicate themselves wholeheartedly. I certainly
    would if I had the money! All I have right now is my voting power. Hope in the
    future that’ll count for something.   

  • jasomm

    Good job John!... I've read so many blogs/reposts that just trash it because they dont understand its a concept being floated to excite further discussion.

  • ZanzibarJoe

    I don't see that we have a choice about this. We must push forward for the sake of mankind, the planet, as well as the entire universe, despite the naysayers, cynics and conservatives.  Human intelligence, free will and intelligent networks are too precious a 'thing' to be complacent about when we take stock of our future.  The inevitable is that we die and our planet, and the solar system, burn up.  What else are we going to spend our talents on?  Reality TV?  Slavery?  Mind-numbing virtual-reality?  Choosing to do it is easy.  Waiting for the inevitable isn't.

  • Compliance Management Software

    In today's day and age it is difficult to think too big. In general, if you can think it, it probably can be built. Will there be failures and missteps along the way? Absolutely! But that's part of the learning and innovation process. I'm sure whatever they eventually end up with, will be quite different than what Elon has described, but as the author above stated, "But, where else are we suppose to start?"

  • PhineasJW

    The knee-jerk mockery (your own Twitter ramblings included John) has been more than a bit dumb and predictable.  

    Want to get a headcount of all the cynics in the world -- propose something that they didn't think of first -- a new idea.There are plenty of things to be cynical about in the world, but this isn't one of them.Musk has already taken on two *behemoth* industries, with his electric cars and reusable rockets, that would have been insane to even contemplate.  Insane.  He obviously has a track record of thinking outside the box -- of not being confined by government or corporate "group think" that is averse to innovation risk.It's more likely that we witnessed history yesterday.  If you're a cynic, that statement must turn your stomach.  GOOD.Musk, or someone, obviously needs to prove the concept with a working prototype.  That needs to happen.  It's right to be skeptical.But to put this in perspective, things are *not* always the way they are for good reasons.  Companies and governments don't constantly innovate.  They go with what they know works, and invariably hang on to their ideas too long.  How are Blockbuster and Polaroid doing today?  How's the mini-computer industry of D.E.C. and Wang and Data General?  How about Blackberry (RIM) tomorrow?There's a brilliant quote by Steve Jobs that explains both his life approach as well as what we witnessed yesterday:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...