Why rich peoples’ whims are useful for innovation

What do rich people do when they are bored? They embark on an innovation project. Conquer Mars, cross the Atlantic, extend human life, invent fundamental artificial intelligence, create a robot, etc. As an expression of their promoters’ ego, these projects are often considered useless and qualified as whims, i.e. a capricious and unreasonable envy. But is it so sure? What if (some of) the whims of today were the useful innovations of tomorrow? What if we should be careful not to pass moral judgment on both what is being done (useless!) and on those who are doing it (the rich and their whims)?

When one mentions the whims of the rich, the names of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos immediately come to mind. Both have embarked on space adventures. Musk wants to set up a human colony on Mars, which many specialists consider unfeasible. The Economist even called them a plutocratic activity (basically, a thing of the rich). There are two mental models behind this criticism: the first is the supposed uselessness of such projects; the second is the supposed illegitimacy of those who carry them.

The usefulness of an innovation is often impossible to assess a priori

Most of these projects seem largely useless. What’s the point of establishing a colony on Mars, many of us ask ourselves, at a time of [insert your current major problem here: global warming, war in Ukraine, inflation, etc.]. Can’t they do something useful? Determining what is useful, however, is a value judgment, usually in reference to dominant mental models. Innovation, which consists in setting alternative models, is therefore easily judged useless.

Moreover, the usefulness of an innovation is often impossible to evaluate a priori. There are exceptions of course: we knew that a vaccine against Covid would be useful before we succeeded in producing it. But most innovations have been judged useless at the beginning. This was the case with the Xerox copier, the laser, the Internet, mobile telephony, Nespresso, to name just a few. Some of these ‘myths’ succeed and turn out to be very useful afterwards. Starlink, by Elon Musk again, is a satellite internet provider created in 2018. The idea was a bit strange. What could it possibly be good for? Yet today, Starlink is fully operational and allows the Ukrainian military to coordinate their operations. The rich man’s whim has become vital to the Ukrainians in less than five years.

So, it is the innovators’ challenge to devote their life to something that everyone finds useless today, and may find indispensable tomorrow.

The illegitimacy of the innovator

The second thing that annoys many observers is that these projects are carried out by rich people who seem to do it only for fun. The gratuitousness of the enterprise is unbearable. The Wright brothers were bored bicycle makers. They were convinced that they could fly an airplane, which seemed ridiculous to many of their contemporaries. After many attempts, they made a historic flight in December 1903, which marked the birth of aviation.

Innovation in progress (Source: Pexel.com)

Also unbearable is the fact that, since they are rich, they do not need to ask anything from anyone, and in particular from any ‘authority’ to launch and finance their projects. For moralists, who often have an aristocratic attitude to society, this freedom is dangerous, as is the pride that these projects express. Elon Musk’s early efforts in space were marked by several failures, which drew ridicule. Thus, after the explosion on the ground of one of his rockets in 2016, French journalist Dominique Nora barely hid her satisfaction when she wrote: “The explosion of Space X’s Falcon 9 launcher reveals the incredible fragility of an entrepreneur, who always promises more than he can deliver. The end of a myth?” We know what happened: today, SpaceX launches on average more than one rocket per month, releases its contents into space, and returns to land on Earth; an extraordinary technical performance unthinkable ten years ago.

Not all “whims” succeed, of course. Howard Hughes was the Elon Musk of the 1950s. He was one of the richest men in the world, a film producer and aviation pioneer. He bought and developed Trans World Airline, making it one of the largest airlines of the post-war era. But his greatest whim was the H-4 Hercules project, a giant seaplane… made of wood, designed for the army. Completed in 1947, the plane flew only once, and with difficulty, and then the project was abandoned. Hughes spent 300 millions of today’s dollars for nothing.

Is there an element of ego, sometimes excessive, in these ventures? Of course, there is. Ego is not fashionable these days, but it is a historical driver of great innovative projects. Without a huge ego, there would be no Leonardo da Vinci or Steve Jobs. These projects therefore reflect a deeply human characteristic, that of trying to solve big problems, of dreaming very high, sometimes in a disproportionate, maybe ridiculous way.

All billionaires can afford to have whims. Some are ridiculous, like buying a 747 and installing a golden swimming pool. Others are potentially useful, but it is often difficult to distinguish which ones. Yet not all billionaires seek to be pioneers. For example, Bernard Arnault, the richest man in the world, finances museums or newspapers, more traditional activities for wealthy people. So, whims are not about billionaires having fun; they are about pioneers who have the means to realize their dreams, or at least to try.

Rich people’s whims, a good deal for society

Because they go against dominant mental models, innovators find themselves facing social hostility that can largely hinder their success. The beginnings of radio in the 19th century thus provoked attempts at boycotting and banning it by musicians’ unions. In the face of this hostility, which can quickly lead to a drying up of funding, rich people have an obvious advantage: they can finance their project with their own funds. It’s their ‘whim’, they fund it, and if it fails, well, that’s okay, they’ll always have a few billions left to boil the pot. In other words, what billionaires’ ‘whim’ offer is optionality, i.e. the fact that they allow for the creation of alternative options that the system does not believe in. It does not believe that flying a heavier-than-air object was possible. Never mind, a billionaire tries to prove otherwise. If it doesn’t work, he’s out of pocket. If it works, the system benefits immensely without having spent a cent. That the billionaire also benefits amply is anecdotal. And so, the whims of the rich, to the chagrin of the moralists, are a good deal for society. A very good deal. They are an effective, if not the only, source of human progress.

On the topic of innovation, read my previous articles: Is Meta the new Kodak? Eight history lessons on the necessity and risks of big innovation bets; Disruptive Innovation: What We Owe to Clayton Christensen.

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🇫🇷This article in French here.

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