Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Elon Musk's Hyperloop: The rise of the Open Source CEO?

The news of the publishing of Elon Musk's proposal for his Hyperloop transport proposal has spurred a bit of discussion on its feasibility, impact on mass transport and how it would fit within the wider market. While many different pieces have begun to discuss this in depth, reading Musk's 54 page published 'alpha' plan PDF, what has struck me is the way in which he has gone about releasing the idea and his approach to it being completed.Musk's last page show's his open approach to developing this idea, as he's putting the entire design and concept out for someone to implement with him. In interviews he's stated that Tesla and Space X is taking up his time (a rumored 100 hour work week) and that Hyperloop needs someone else to take up the challenge.

This collaborative and 'open source' (for lack of a better term) approach isn't entirely new, just look back to great software development projects such as Linus Torvalds and Linux, as well as its subsequent iterations. However, the scale of attention this launch has received puts the openness of Musk's approach at odds with common CEO behaviour, at least in my mind. Growing up, the CEOs of the 80's and 90's, especially in the tech sector, seemed to be those guarding intellectual property as lifeblood, grinding out a competitive advantage through protection of innovation. The struggle between Microsoft and Apple and the stories that built up around it, highlighted in books like 'Fire in the Valley' (and its TNT made for TV movie eqiuvalent), show how ideas were aggressively co-opted. While CEOs like Richard Branson have broken this mold in the way they are perceived and approach the public, you still get the feeling that at the end of the day, collaboration and innovation are still held at arm's length by IP.

Its this type of mentality that makes Musk's approach to Hyperloop quite interesting. It shouldn't be surprising given his ambitions for the future when asked, "You want the future to be better than the past – or at least I do, quite a bit.", but putting that into practice in the way he has is quite refreshing. Musk hasn't eschewed business success, but where a normal CEO would have put the plans for something like Hyperloop away for another time, he has instead recognized that a big project such as this doesn't just require big thinking, but big resource, which at the moment requires outside assistance.

Does Musk's approach to this project signal a change in the technology market and the way it goes about R&D? Probably Not. Patents are still the currency of many large corporations, look at Google's acquisition of Motorola, and privacy is still thought to be key in competitive advantage. However, if something like Hyperloop can show how collaboration and sourcing can grow the scale of what a company can achieve in both size and time, then a clear opportunity is there. As a project, Hyperloop may not succeed in the face of many different barriers, but as a way of working and developing it highlights a novel way forward in big technology business.

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