Business Must Imagine the Unimaginable. Let’s Start With Aliens.

From Oumuamua to Elon Musk to the Imagination Machine

15 questions

  1. Are we alone?

  2. Are you sure?

  3. What makes you feel alien?

  4. Who is your alien?

  5. Would you relocate to Mars or to the Moon, if you could?

  6. What’s the most unimaginable thing you can imagine?

  7. Which mission are you on?

  8. What is your blind spot?

  9. What are you purposefully ignoring?

  10. Is your organization in the business of colonizing?

  11. Which traces will you leave?

  12. Would you go back to the beginning of the universe? Or to its end?

  13. Why not?

  14. Did you know that salt came from stars?

  15. Do you believe in panspermia?

Management is science fiction

2017 saw not only the birth of the House of Beautiful Business—an arguably small step for humankind—but also the first recorded appearance of an interstellar object in our solar system—arguably a giant step for humankind. Dubbed “Oumuamua” (Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first”), the object garnered worldwide attention because it didn’t show any of the usual characteristics of a meteor, and its flight path was devoid of gravitational encounters with any planets in our galaxy.

The House and Oumuamua do not have much in common, but there is a connection between the prospect of extraterrestrial life and your work life.

And that’s imagination.

Last week at a House masterclass, Martin Reeves, chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute, shared insights from The Imagination Machine, his comprehensive attempt to debunk the myth of the lone visionary, and to systematize imagination as a scalable, replicable effort. For Reeves, imagination is the lifeblood of organizations in times of AI and shortened innovation cycles: Companies simply have no choice but to reimagine themselves again and again. They must see the world as it is not, and embrace the counterfactual and speculative. So in order to gain real insights or new ideas, Reeves argues, businesses should not survey their customers but study those who aren’t their customers. They should not focus on what is relevant, but on what seems irrelevant.

Simply put, they must become better at imagining the unimaginable.

Picturing extraterrestrial life is the ultimate outside-the-box thinking. Whatever comes up in your mind, it’ll be ridiculous—like a bold idea spoken aloud for the very first time.

Harvard astrophysicist and astronomer Avi Loeb (who will contribute to Concrete Love) thinks that if we ever have alien contact, we will be shocked. As he told us when we spoke last week via Zoom, they will be beyond our understanding. Loeb is a much-awarded and respected scientist whose book about aliens began with a paper he and his co-author, Shmuel Bialy, published in 2018, arguing that Oumuamua was humanity’s first contact with a relic of extraterrestrial intelligence. In recent years, Loeb has become increasingly outspoken about the need to increase funding for the search for alien life.

When we asked him to name a popular book or film that came close to the scientific evidence for extraterrestrial life, he told us he was not a fan of science fiction. Pseudo-scientific objectivity compromises the power of fiction for him, especially when it violates the laws of physics. He prefers pure science writing or fiction that is not about aliens instead.

Herein, too, lies an analogy to management. Traditional management is essentially science fiction, an odd mix of storytelling (a company’s vision, business plan, and brand—they’re simply stories that aspire to truth) and pseudoscience (the belief that collecting and analyzing data helps optimize human beings). But our obsession with efficiency stops us from rethinking our business models. Management bureaucracies hinder the birth of new plans. Meanwhile the pandemic has reminded us of the power of art. We need art to help us make sense of the unimaginable, and to prepare ourselves for what’s next.

What we need is a bifurcation: more rigorous science on the one hand, and more daring imagination on the other, without either of them holding the other accountable.

—Tim Leberecht

Photo by NASA/ESA/STScI: Oumuamua

Photo by NASA/ESA/STScI: Oumuamua

Get your head in the sky and out of the sand

Excerpts from an interview with Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is a professor of science at Harvard University, where he led the Department of Astronomy and was the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. In his most recent book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, he explores the first interstellar visitor ever spotted in our solar system: Oumuamua, which he determined was not an asteroid but might be a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization.

What do you make of the recent U.S. intelligence report of 140 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena?

I regarded this as a scientific matter. The most important statement made in the report is that the sum of the events appear to be real. And they make this statement based on the fact that they were detected by multiple instruments, by infrared sensors, by optical cameras, by multiple people seeing the same thing. There is also a classified component to the report where I’m sure the evidence is more conclusive.

The U.S. pretty much knows its own technologies and what is being operated on a routine basis. Given that some of the events repeated many times, the question is, could it be human-made by some other nation? If the objects are behaving in ways that cannot be explained by what we know of [the U.S’s] current technologies, we would probably still see signatures of the same technologies, even if they were more advanced than what the U.S. possesses. And I find it hard to believe that U.S. intelligence fails so miserably to tell what other nations are doing.

If these are real objects, and they behave well beyond expectations in terms of the limits of our technologies, then they’re probably not human-made. Then the only other two options left on the table are that these are natural events that are occurring in the atmosphere of the Earth that we don’t fully understand. The other possibility is that they are produced by some extraterrestrial technological civilizations.

Both are intriguing and exciting and interesting. Therefore, it’s a win-win proposition to have a scientific experiment that tries to collect more data, more evidence on a similar phenomena. What we need to do is deploy instruments, state-of-the-art cameras connected to Wide Field telescopes, that feed data into a computer system that analyzes the data in a transparent way.

What fascinates you personally about this topic?

Finding out whether we are the smartest kid on the block is a fundamental question that will have a huge social impact. The natural inclination of people is to believe that we are special, unique, and privileged. If we close the curtains on our windows and say we don’t have neighbors, and there is nobody smarter than us, we can maintain our ignorance forever. But that will not change whether we have neighbors or not.

Philosophers refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, because they argued that they knew that the sun moves around the earth. Nonetheless the earth continued to move around the sun. In order for us to have a realistic assessment of the environment we live in, we need to collect evidence and base our notions on what we see.

When there are anomalies, things that we don’t expect, they should not be ignored but rather paid attention to.

Reality is very often unexpected. The way we learn about it is by paying attention to anomalies, to the evidence. We will learn something new.

How do you imagine intelligent forms of alien life?

I think the first contact will actually be with technological equipment. Most of the stars formed billions of years before the sun, so [alien life] could have existed billions of years before us. What we will meet is most likely technological equipment far more superior to what we possess. Traveling between stars takes a long time, and no biological creature can survive for that long. Given the hazardous environment of cosmic ray bombardment, it makes much more sense to send equipment, just like we sent the Voyager or New Horizon.

The way I imagine that kind of equipment is that it will have artificial intelligence. We already have AI doing things that supersede human abilities. And within a decade, AI will be extraordinary. It will make its own decisions, learn from experience, adapt to changing circumstances. So just imagine a piece of equipment that is as intelligent or more intelligent than a human being. Learning from experience, making its own decisions, not needing to communicate with the sender.

In order for us to understand what this equipment is doing or trying to do, we should observe it. See what kind of information it is seeking. We’ll need our computers to interpret their computers. I think it will be quite shocking the moment we put our hands on some advanced technology from another civilization.

What about colonizing Mars?

Well, first of all, a general statement: currently all our eggs are in one basket here on Earth, and if a catastrophe occurs on Earth, similar to what happened to the dinosaurs, we could lose everything. And it would make a lot of sense for us to spread into space, but not necessarily to a place like Mars. There is no protection there, no magnetic field, no atmosphere. If humans want to live elsewhere, I think we can build a platform in space similar to the space station, but equipped with a much more convenient environment for humans to live in.

It took us 100,000 years to move from the savanna to apartment buildings in cities. And if you think about it, it will take us probably less than 100,000 years to move from apartment buildings in cities to some floating platform in space. Because the difference between space and an apartment building is not as great as the difference between an apartment building and the savanna.

What is the legacy in science that you wish to have?

The main purpose of writing my book and doing a thousand interviews over the past half a year was to convey the excitement that science can bring. And to ask the question: Are we alone?

My hope is that this will enter the mainstream of science where it will be an activity of many scientists. Just the way that, for example, the search for dark matter is a mainstream activity now within the astronomy community. And, frankly, whether dark matter is actually Weakly Interacting Massive Particles would have very little impact on people’s daily lives. But whether Oumuamua was a technological artifact, or whether the unidentified aerial phenomenon are probes, and whether Oumuamua may be related to those—these questions would have a huge impact on society and our future, our aspirations for space, and the way we perceive ourselves in the big picture.

This interview was conducted by Monika Jiang and Tim Leberecht.

Photo by Juli Kosolapova: Mars aka Wadi Rum, Aqaba, Jordan 

Photo by Juli Kosolapova: Mars aka Wadi Rum, Aqaba, Jordan 

Colonizing Mars? Sounds like going back in time.

By 2033 China wants to complete its first manned mission to Mars, following Wang Xiaojun’s plans to explore the planet as a resource. NASA has similar ideas, and so does Elon Musk: the SpaceX founder has proclaimed himself the imperator of the Red Planet. In a video, Musk cites a passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”

That’s where Musk pauses, laughs, and says: “This is not true. This is false––Mars.”

To that assertion Sagan writes, “What shall we do with Mars? There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing the question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if they are only microbes.”

Musk, however, appears to believe colonizing Mars will ensure the survival of humanity. Call me skeptical. And is it really so important to save human life before anything else?

We might not even succeed. Scientifically speaking, a mission to Mars comes with deadly radiation, micrometeorite impacts, and clinching dust particles, as well as severe risk to humans’ physiology and psychology. The crucial question we should ask ourselves about colonizing Mars is not “could” but “should.”

We are killing the earth. Now we want to flee to space and start all over again with settling and gaining control at the expense of those who are deemed inferior? That sounds like history repeating itself.

What makes life precious is what remains a mystery: the universe itself, our mortality, and that of the natural world around us. Let’s imagine ways to reconstruct what’s left of life on Earth. If there are Martians out there, I hope I will never meet them.

—Monika Jiang

Sustainability in space

Last week a SpaceX rocket successfully launched 88 more satellites into orbit, 85 for commercial and government customers and three for Starlink, its internet provider. The company has set a goal of launching 42,000 satellites into orbit by 2027, beaming high-speed internet to customers around the globe, and is currently selling Starlink kits at a loss, with $885 million in subsidies from the U.S. government helping to fund the program—small change for a company now reportedly worth $74 billion.

But what will happen to all those satellites when they reach the end of their effective lives? We spoke with aerospace engineer Alessanda Capurro about sustainability in space last week, and about early plans by the European Space Agency (ESA) to clean up the mess. Regulations aren’t keeping up with technology, she told us, “leading to a huge increase in the amount of debris in orbit.” Space junk, in other words, poses collision risks for every satellite that shares its orbit:

“If we don’t do something to prevent this debris, it will create something called Kessler effect, which is an exponential increase in debris: more debris is going to destroy more satellites, which is going to destroy even more satellites, and so on, and will make the orbits completely unusable for future generations.”

Capurro works on technologies that enable satellites to burn as they fall to earth, keeping space clear for other craft after they’re no longer useful, instead of simply orbiting our planet as a piece of floating junk. She also spoke about the question of how to program sustainability into mission operations, controlling spacecraft while they’re active so that they avoid impacts from debris, and preventing the active craft from being damaged and becoming debris themselves.

The ESA is working on what might be the most ambitious project in space-cleaning yet: active debris removal. Their new startup, Clearspace, is designing a satellite that can intercept debris and bring it down. If the project works, Capurro told us, we can clean up the satellite debris that’s already there, and also link up with active satellites and potentially refuel them, perform maintenance and repairs, or even reuse and reassemble current satellites in a form of space recycling. “So it’s a very powerful idea,” she said. Let’s hope it works.

—Eva Talmadge
Photo by Neven Krcmarek: Veil nebula, remnant of a dying star and astronomical mystery

Photo by Neven Krcmarek: Veil nebula, remnant of a dying star and astronomical mystery

Zodiacs as Businesses

A biohacking startup specializing in nootropics looking for their series B funding.

A family-owned restaurant that’s been serving the same red cabbage dolmas from the Black Sea region for 52 years.

A nightclub that turns into a skate park during the day.

Your favorite corner shop that knows exactly what you (don’t) want, led by an owner who talks too much.

A nonprofit organization that seeks to advance girls’ education in India that has zero tolerance for corporate greed.

A prestigious architecture bureau that takes on overly complex bridge projects in Australia without telling anyone about it.

A member-owned co-op where everyone is welcome—so long as they share the same non-confrontational ideals.

A Saudi-Arabian oil company that’s now pivoting toward petrochemicals, determined to lead the clean energy transition and overshadow all competition.

An ice cream truck roaming around North America, hosting poetry slam nights that always end up in discussions about human existence.

A one-person business starting out in the CBD industry, oscillating between over-ambition and nagging doubts.

A mid-size fashion e-commerce shop that offers ready-to-wear-outfits that are put together just for you and cannot be returned.

A business that does not exist yet and might flourish in outer space.


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