Comment: Build something beautiful and succeed in the digital age


The 2015 biography of the Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance offers readers a fascinating insight into the mind of a man on a mission to achieve the seemingly impossible.

But more than just a portrait of an individual whose vision and drive at times borders on the maniacal, it reveals a lot about success in today’s digital economy.

In both Musk’s electronic car manufacturer and space exploration businesses there is not just a burning desire to develop new technologies with no lesser aim than securing the future of mankind.

But there’s an understanding that this will only be achieved if it’s done with a flourish, a sense of style and design – form as well as function are important.

Musk is taking a Silicon Valley start-up approach to areas of engineering, manufacturing and commerce for whom this is as alien as the Mars surface he one day hopes to help humans colonise.

But he does not want to just achieve this by engineering alone, solving a seemingly intractable technical problem and cobbling together a solution.

He wants to build products that are not just functional but beautiful. SpaceX’s Dragon manned  rocket has been intentionally designed to look like something from Star Trek.

What the biography points out is that this is not because Musk has embarked on some sort of massive vanity project.

He understands that if he is to win over people’s trust that his technology will take them safely to a planet on which no human has ever set foot it must be beautiful.

Not for him the cramped, ugly space capsules the likes of which British astronaut Time Peake used to transport him to and from the International Space Station.

For the recent Paralympics, engineers at British Formula One racing team Williams produced wheelchairs for some of our athletes.

There was nothing particularly revolutionary but use modern materials and knowledge of aerodynamics were employed to achieve those all-important marginal gains.

But at the end of the feature the Williams engineer said with a smile that the psychological impact on their opponents when the British athletes appear in their new wheelchairs is just as important.

“They’re beautiful,” he said, “and we all know beautiful things go faster.”

No wonder rival Formula One team McLaren is attracting interest from Apple, according to reports this week.

So what’s all this got to do with travel? It tells us that technology on its own is never the answer.

You can build the most functional, quickest and accurate flight price comparison website in the world, but if it doesn’t appeal to us as human beings it won’t be used.

On Monday the tenth annual Travolution Summit takes place in London and I expect this will be a recurring theme that crops up throughout the day.

Delegates will hear from leading experts in digital transformation and a succession of companies who have made a success in the age of the internet.

Great technology is, of course, at the heart of everything the best companies do today, but it’s just an enabler.

Travel firms need not fear the rise of technology per se but, as we have seen with the likes of Airbnb and Uber, those people with the vision to exploit it to create something that makes us smile.

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