Elon Musk has been called an entrepreneur, an engineer, an investor. But none of these labels reveal the true nature of the man who gave us Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX Technologies or the billions he has accumulated while doing so.
Elon Musk is a culture designer.
Culture designers are different from entrepreneurs because they recognize that they must alter standard practices and challenge entrenched social norms in order to realize their vision of a better world. Entrepreneurs seek to innovate with new business models, product lines, and ground-breaking technologies. But not all entrepreneurs are able to make ideas go viral, ride the waves of disruption that come with new innovations, or demonstrate a practical competence in the evolutionary process of cultural change.
At the age of 12, Elon Musk sold his first video game. It was his first noteworthy attempt to liberate humanity from the bounds of Earth and look skyward to the frontiers of space. His game was about space invaders and the $500 he received for creating it was his first taste of success.
In the two decades that followed, he has kept his sights high above the horizon. Elon Musk recognized the power of technology to sweep through a culture and transform its daily practices. When his partners set out to build the first platform for using credit cards on the internet, he knew that the greatest hindrance to e-commerce was the ability to protect personal financial information. This “barrier to entry” kept hundreds of millions of people from making purchases online. So he thoughtfully built out the platform we know today as Paypal with great sensitivity to the fears of the day.
But it is perhaps most telling to observe how he transformed the conversation around electric cars.
It was never the technology itself that kept people from jumping on board. All cars on the market without an internal combustion engine just weren’t appealing. So Musk took the unorthodox stand by making a really expensive car that would sell because it was… sexy! While Toyota was busy making something affordable that competed with other vehicles in its class, Telsa Motors claimed the elite niche of luxury sports cars and catapulted ahead with an entirely new game.
Why was this a culture design? Because it built on the fact that human beings are wired to know our place in society. We covet positions of status and power. And we all want to be part of the cool crowd. So he engineered a car for rich people who care about being seen as sexy. His car was a hundred thousand dollars more expensive than anything out there. And it sold like hotcakes as each new model rolled off the assembly line. Musk knew that status and sex appeal are more powerful motivators than affordability and cost-savings tradeoffs.
By naming his car company “Tesla” he entered the insider crowd of science geeks who all know the great Nikola Tesla — whose pioneering work on electricity is still revered to this day. By paying tribute to the great inventor, Musk was able to cast himself in the role of radical scientist with ideas beyond his time. Thus is the power of cultural evolution to take an idea that is already fit for deep attachment and add novelty that helps it spread. Telsa Motors is both a celebration of the late 19th Century attempts to build electric cars and a “hat nod” to those who remember that Nikola wanted to give energy production away to the masses — the very thing Musk is seeking to do with his SolarCity company.
And he knows how to ride the waves of resistance too. By staking his claim on the side of those who believe the auto industry “killed the electric car” he has been well positioned to go on the offensive when PR smear campaigns get unleashed to undermine his business. In early 2013 a writer for the New York Times by the name of John Broder test drove a Telsa car and made false witness against it. Not to be slighted, Musk made public the data files captured while Broder was in the driver’s seat and showed that the article was based on blatant lies. This nullified the attack and elevated Musk in the eyes of his fans.
But right now he needs to understand that he has to tackle this problem as a culture designer, not as an angry/passionate entrepreneur. He needs to do a lot more than convince his fans. He needs to win a culture war against internal combustion cars, the oil industry that profits from them, and the vast media apparatus set up to promote them.
(Just to put this into perspective: TESLA’s media budget is $0—they don’t do any marketing. The auto industry spends more than $10,000,000,000 a year to buy media in the United States alone.)
Engineering the evolutionary path to this kind of cultural change will require just as much ingenuity as the design of advanced carbon fibers and zero waste manufacturing. It is an advanced science in its own right – and one that will be essential for making the transition away from the Petroleum Age amidst the power structures that hold so much sway over public opinion today.
We applaud Tesla Motors for “going viral” without a marketing department. And yet the experience we have in culture design tells us that the most difficult battles are still to come. They are going to need the full suite of tools for strategic action that are now available to them. Much has been learned from the PR tricks of Phillip Morris to undermine public health research about the impacts of cigarettes. Billions are spent each year in idea warfare—as we saw earlier this year with the exposé of NSA surveillance by the clandestine company Edward Snowden worked for, Booz Allen Hamilton.
To overcome the immense power base of the fossil fuel industry, Tesla Motors will need to map out idea landscapes and chart a course of action that evolves along with public sentiment. They can do this by revealing the psychological drivers of resistance and adoption, engaging in social analytics research to identify how the networks of people and organizations adapt to build their campaigns of resistance, and learning from case studies about prior idea propagations that culminated in deep paradigm shifts at the societal scale. Culture design is the convergence of practices like these in creative thinking, strategic action, and sociological research.
Elon Musk strives to redefine the energy and transportation sectors. This will require that he deploy the full suite of culture design tools to out-compete these extremely powerful interests.
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B. Laszlo Karafiath Joe Brewer
Producer Research Director
Coming soon in this series…
Malala Yousafzai — The girl who challenged the Taliban
Russell Brand — An unexpected revolutionary
Image Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam