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What the First Moonshot Teaches Us About Even Harder Moonshots

What the First Moonshot Teaches Us About Even Harder Moonshots

It’s hard to prepare for floods when you’re fighting a fire—even if you can see the river rising dangerously fast. Similarly, it’s hard to think long term in the midst of immediate challenges such the invasion of Ukraine, the Covid pandemic, rising inflation and political grid lock. Yet, there are long-term, multi-dimensional challenges that need our attention right now, such as in dealing with climate, healthcare, equity, and preparing for future geopolitical instability and pandemics.

Thinking long term is critical—and possible. For example, when President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade, he rallied the nation to achieve a complex challenge that might otherwise have taken many decades. And, he did so in the midst of immediate challenges that mirror many of our current ones.

Kennedy’s narrative was an example of what I call a “future history.” With vivid strokes, JFK described an ambitious yet attainable goal by a specific date. It captured public imagination and support, and, as he said, “served to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” 

Working backwards from Kennedy’s future history, an extensive public/private partnership laid out the path to invent the future Kennedy envisioned. This included, in no small part, developing and integrating a host of new technologies and capabilities, such as in materials, propulsion, guidance, control, communications and safety.

In this first edition of my new newsletter, I’ll zero in on how future histories can guide the innovation and transformation needed on a host of complex, multi-dimensional challenges. I’ll use climate change as my primary example and zero in on the transportation and critical infrastructure transformations needed to reach net-zero. I will aim, however, to offer ideas broadly applicable to all sectors and other challenges.

Mitigating Climate Change: More Daunting Than Going to the Moon

Today, the world finds itself with even more challenging deadlines than going to the moon—the most daunting of which is getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to mitigate the worse damages of man-made climate change.

Working back from the 2050 target allows us to, as Kennedy did, “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” to lay out a path to success.

Implications for Transportation and Critical Infrastructure

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Here’s some simple math about climate change as applied to transportation and related critical infrastructure: Transportation contributes about 16 percent of global carbon emissions, about 60-80 percent of which are due to light-duty gas-fueled vehicles like cars, buses and trucks. So, eliminating roughly 10-12 percent of global emissions requires converting all light-duty vehicles to zero emission by 2050.

We already have viable electric vehicles to initiate the transition. And, they are rapidly improving in quality and cost.

The challenge will be scaling. At current rates, it takes about 15 years to turn over the global fleet of vehicles. That means starting in 2035—15 years before our 2050 deadline—all new vehicles will need to be EVs (or better). And, as a corollary, we will also need to stop making and selling gas-engine cars by 2035.

Automotive Market and Industry Implications

This simple math has earth-shattering market implications. Over the next decade or so, the worldwide market for EVs will go from roughly four percent in 2020 to near 100 percent. And, just as significantly, the market for gas-powered cars will go to zero.

Investors and the automotive industry are responding. 

Tesla, for example, is valued at more than the rest of the traditional automotive industry combined—even though its market share in 2020 was just over one percent of global new car sales. Clearly, investors believe that the need to address climate change will drive massive growth for Tesla at the expense of traditional manufacturers.

In response, those manufacturers are also racing to focus on EVs—rather than being left with just the rapidly shrinking demand for gas-powered cars. General Motors, for example, has announced it will launch 30 EV models by 2025 and will phase out all new gas and diesel-powered cars by 2035. Ford and Jaguar will move to only sell EVs in Europe by 2030. Volvo will completely stop selling gas-powered cars by 2030. 

The Laws of Zero

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Now, many forecasters are pessimistic about such lofty aspirations. But these same skeptics also never imagined that Tesla would be where it is at today, or that Elon Musk would be the richest person in the world as a result. That’s because forecasters tend to extrapolate from today, and therefore have trouble seeing the exponential effects of what in our book, A Brief History of a Perfect Future, Paul Carroll, Tim Andrews and I call “The Laws of Zero.”

These laws describe seven key drivers—in computing, communications, information, genomics, energy, water and transportation—enabling exponentially increasing capabilities and decreasing cost. The Laws of Zero, for example are enabling smarter, better and cheaper EVs at an accelerating pace, because EVs are essentially big, battery-powered computers on wheels. They are also driving the development of autonomous technology, which will further decrease cost and accelerate adoption.

The Critical Role of Government

The market is rapidly reshaping to address climate change; but, market mechanisms are not enough. Government is a critical player on both the supply and demand sides of this massive transition.

Clearly, on the supply side, neither Tesla’s current positioning nor the automotive industry’s response would be possible if it were not for a long, successful history of government-funded research, regulation, financial support (including existential bridge loans), and manufacturing and sales incentives. That supply-side support must continue.

Governmental actions on the demand side are also critical for scaling. A very good start is the executive rrder issued in December 2021 by President Biden to use the federal government’s scale and purchasing power to convert its current fleet of 600,000 cars and trucks to EVs. This includes, by 2027, only buying EVs for light-duty vehicles, and moving to only EV acquisitions for all new vehicles by 2035.

Working backwards from these very specific target dates, every federal agency must now “organize and measures its energies” around not only the purchase, but also the orderly deployment, operation, recharging maintenance, and critical infrastructure to support the transformed fleet.

Such measures can be taken at state and local levels as well, and would serve as an important catalyst for market-wide scaling.

How Will You Invent the Future?

More broadly, the math for getting to net-zero in other major economic sectors, such as energy, agriculture, industry and buildings, is also simple yet stark.

Whether you are in the private or public sector, your organization must examine how your purpose, mission and strategies can best support the existential need to get to net-zero by 2050. So, what can you do today to get to where we need to be tomorrow?

First, you can do as President Kennedy did by writing your own future history. What does your organization need to accomplish by key milestone dates such 2050, 2035, 2027—all the way back to today?

Second, determine how can you leverage the exponential capabilities and declining costs produced by the Laws of Zero.

Third, use these narratives to organize and measure your strategies and programs—starting today—as part of our collective path to net zero.

This is a challenge, as President Kennedy said about going to the moon, that we must “be willing to accept, unwilling to postpone and intend to succeed.”

I invite you explore these ideas further in our book and future newsletters, and to continue our conversation in the comments below.

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