Yesterday, Elon Musk came to the Sorbonne, giving a talk about climate change and the importance to act in favor of the environment. One of the Sorbonne’s constituting universities invited him to present and discuss with students, on the same stage where Morgan Freeman, who plays Professor Samuel Norman, spoke in Lucy (the movie). “[COP21] is a crucial event aiming to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, [and] in parallel to the official negotiations, the civil society is getting ready to demonstrate its mobilization and send a message to the decision makers,” the official invitation said. “In this context, Elon Musk accepted [to] share his vision in front of the students. He will discuss how we can all take meaningful action towards changing the future.“
Here are some photos of the event, and a transcript of the answer he gave my question about prize competitions and incentives to get people to solve the world’s problems (see here starting at 17:45).
Then a Q&A followed, and Musk too questions from the audience. I had the privilege to address my question (slightly edited below, go here if you want to watch):
Me: Hello sir, thank you for coming [to Sorbonne]. I am PhD student in marketing and study peoples’ motivations to participate in challenges. You have created a company which creates challenges, which brought a rocket […] to space and back. My question to you would be: do you think that monetary incentives are the best way to get people to participate in solving the world’s biggest problems? Or are there other ways to motivated people to do good?
Elon Musk: I think that there is definitely a philantropic element, and people want to do the right thing, and they want to do what’s good. The issue we have right now is that the rules fundamentally favor the bad outcome. So, when you’re fighting for the good outcome and it’s an uphill battle, it’s just slower. So with respect to climate change, it is critical that the government – who is the setter of rules and decides what rules companies will play by – [gets involved]. And we currently, have a system in which, even if most people don’t do the bad behavior, some will still do the bad behavior.
The issue right now is that the rules fundamentally favor the bad outcome (Elon Musk)
Me: And is it just about money?
Elon Musk: Money and prizes are basically just an information mechanism for labor allocation. It sort of tells companies what to do. This is why it’s critical for action to be taken at a government level, because they are setting the rules of the game. And it’s just crazy to have these rules favor a bad outcome.
Money and prizes are basically just an information mechanism. It tells companies what to do (Elon Musk)
To be honest, I would have loved a more specific answer about the mechanisms, some experience sharing about his experience with setting up grand challenges (like the Carbon X-Prize or other Energy & Environment X-Prizes), or even whether he believes contests should be used as a way to solve problems. In France, the use of contests by government is controversial, while it seems that in the U.S. the question is not even being raised (NASA uses it, the Senate has introduced the “Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015” bill…)! But I reckon that he basically wants governments to take action, not just private initatives, in order to make the fight against climate change more effective that it is today. And that is a great point; it’s exactly what COP 21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change which takes place in Paris at the moment, is all about. Governments need to take action!
Here’s Musk’s complete presentation, in video, with Q&A:
It was nice to attend one of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs’ talks yesterday, and even if the presentation as well as Musk’s answers were short, he brought a cristal clear message! The few questions about his personal experience and tips to entrepreneurs were politely dismissed to discuss solely climate-related questions, which I think was great. And beyond the important message that Musk spread, I also think it was a really nice branding effort by Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne.
Looking forward to more of these!