10–12 July 2017
Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia

Bran Ferren: Aerospace in the U.S. Needs to Find Its Way Back to Innovation

Posted: 25 July 2016, 1:45 p.m. EDT


Speaker: Bran Ferren, co-founder and chief creative officer, Applied Minds LLC


by Duane Hyland, AIAA communications

Despite the wonderful things aerospace has done — including inventing powered flight, putting a man on the moon, establishing the international space station, working on the X-plane projects, and bringing the world closer together through satellite technology and new and better airplanes — Bran Ferren, co-founder and chief creative officer of Applied Minds LLC, says the industry in the U.S. has lost the innovative spirit that made its leadership in aerospace a given and that it needs to get that spirit back before the U.S. can wow the world again.

Speaking at the “Innovate or Die! (And Dying Is Easier)” session at the 2016 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum and Exposition on July 25 in Salt Lake City, Ferren argued that the aerospace industry in the U.S. has forgotten the basic rules of innovation: “Put someone in charge; empower them; leave them alone; if they screw up, fire them; if they succeed, give them the things they need to get their job done.”

This approach allowed the U.S. to put a man on the moon, he said, but, in recent years, NASA has abandoned this way of thought, miring itself in a risk-averse, requirements-based culture that stifles innovative spirit.

Bran Ferren, co-founder and chief creative officer, Applied Minds LLC, delivers opening keynote address on Monday, 25 June, at AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2016, taking place 25–27 July in Salt Lake City.

Ferren urged groups like AIAA to take a stance against requirement-based engineering and push for a return to formulating big, risky ideas to push advancement in aerospace — especially since, he said, risk aversity has killed engineering innovation and drive.

The former president of research and development and creative technology for Walt Disney Imagineering shared six steps that he thinks will help the U.S. aerospace industry return to the big, risky ideas.

“First, develop a vision that people are willing to spend their lives and energy pursuing,” Ferren said. “Second, gather your talent; make sure you have the best and brightest people on your team pursuing your vision. Third, become better storytellers; tell stories about your vision in such a way that people are motivated to pursue it, just like NASA did with the moon launch. Fourth, embrace system engineering, but make it more big idea-based than requirements-based. Fifth, move beyond risk aversity, and embrace compelling visions. And finally, improve the state of education in our nation’s schools so that today’s students are well-prepared to become tomorrow’s visionary leaders.

“You can do this,” he said. “You have set the course of civilization and set the gold standard to do things really right, and nothing else is more important.”

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