BBC Dialogues: Why Is Instagram Growing, While Twitter Plateaus?

BBC Dialogues: Why Is Instagram Growing, While Twitter Plateaus?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Instagram recently announced it had reached a big milestone: half a billion users. The BBC asked me to interview the company’s COO, Marne Levine to explore the company’s appeal and find out why video – and new products like Boomerang – are helping fuel that growth.

“We’re certainly marching towards a billion…and even beyond a billion. Today, video is exploding on Instagram… In the last six months, consumption increased by more than 40%…Sometimes people want sight, sound and motion to tell their stories. ” Instagram COO, Marne Levine

Listen to the Instagram interview and discussion below or at the BBC’s Business Matter’s podcast (Instagram segment starts at 26:40 on BBC podcast).


Here’s a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

BBC host, Fergus Nicholl: Do you use Instagram? A new study says that half the Fortune 500 companies use it for marketing. Alison, you’ve been talking to a bigwig at the company about its recent announcement that it’s reached the magic number of half a billion users?

Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. I interviewed Marne Levine. Instagram is very well known as a place where youth congregate, especially teenagers…they use it to reach their friends and share cool things…a lot of these users are women. But they’re not the only ones making up this figure of half a billion users. I asked Marne how entrepreneurs are using Instagram to attract more business…

Marne Levine:  There are so many different stories of small businesses, big businesses that have grown through the Instagram community. A woman named Isha Yuba in Germany – has “Art Youth Society.” She started by designing a bracelet, she posted a photo of it. Somebody inquired and suddenly she has a thriving business. She has turned her passion into livelihood. A lot of businesses have started to advertise on Instagram. We now have more than 200,000 advertisers…the vast majority of those are small businesses.

Alison van Diggelen: You’ve added about 100 million users in about 9 months.  Obviously the next milestone would be one billion…Any ideas when that might happen?

Bay Area Women's Summit panel, photo by Alison van DiggelenMarne Levine: We’re certainly marching towards a billion…and even beyond a billion. When we have more people on the platform, it really benefits the Instagram community – we get a wide range of perspectives, new windows into different things that are happening around the world.

Those could be big events like the Olympics…that’s probably how I’m going to experience the Olympics, through Instagram. Lots of people are sharing ordinary moments, epic moments and everything in between.

Alison van Diggelen: Why do you think Instagram is doing so much better than Twitter, that seems to have plateaued?

Marne Levine: We’re constantly trying to thinking about: what would add value to the community? We listen to feedback, continue to innovate so people can tell their stories in different ways. When Instagram started it was really all about photos. Today video is exploding on Instagram… In the last 6 months, consumption increased by  more than 40%.

Sometimes people want “sight sound and motion” to tell their stories. Sometimes it’s not necessarily just a straight video….I don’t know whether you know Boomerang? Cool little looping videos that take ordinary moments and turn them into fun and delightful moments.

Alison van Diggelen: You posted one of your son going up and down the stairs?

Marne Levine: I did!  Somebody once said this to me and this is how I now think about it: Motion is the new filter.

Alison van Diggelen: Your CEO persuaded the Pope to go on Instagram. Tell us about that…

Marne Levine: The Pope is looking to inspire lots of people. What he told our CEO, is that a lot of times….people will show him an image to get over the language barrier…Images are the most powerful way to connect, because they transcend borders, language, cultures, generations. You look at the image and instantly connect. He understood that there’s a new global language of images. In this case 500 million people are contributing to that new global language of images – it could be images that are documenting the plight of refugees… images of hope and opportunity. That can be really inspiring…

(End of interview)

Fergus Nicholl: She could be VP for sales, as well as COO. She does a pretty fantastic job of selling…But just to zoom in on one of the questions I thought was very sharp: this question of plateauing.

You were talking about Twitter, and people might also think about Snapchat…I wonder whether Instagram is doing really well just because it’s in vogue.  Maybe, in a year’s time there’ll be something else?

Alison van Diggelen: I think that’s the constant challenge of Silicon Valley companies, of social media companies in general. They have to keep innovating. They can’t just put out this cool platform and assume that people will come to it. She talked about how they listen to feedback…because not everyone loves Instagram. They recently changed their algorithm to make (the feed) not just strictly reverse chronological order and that caused push-back from certain users, so she underlined how they try to listen to their users and please as many users as possible.

They’ve also launched “business profiles” to allow businesses, like the entrepreneur mentioned, to get the word out and reach their target audience. And of course, over 50% of the users are in this very sought after demographic of under 35-years old. So it’s a great way for companies, business and media outlets to reach this young demographic.

Continue listening to our discussion on the BBC podcast (Starts at 33:00):

What can be done to increase the number of women in business?

How has Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg influenced Marne Levine?

The interview took place at the Bay Area Women’s Summit on June 21st. The Women’s Foundation partnered with the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland to host the event.

Find out more

Re Brexit: BBC Dialogues: What does it mean for the United States, globalization and Hillary Clinton? 

More BBC Reports at Fresh Dialogues: Re Tesla, Solar Impulse, Code for America and Mexicans in Silicon Valley, etc.

Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

BBC Report: How “Make the World Better” Mantra Drives Silicon Valley Tech

BBC Report: How “Make the World Better” Mantra Drives Silicon Valley Tech

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Making the world a better place.” This popular mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is regularly ridiculed by HBO’s popular series, Silicon Valley. For sure, the valley is full of hyperbole and idealistic exuberance, and to many outsiders that may seem completely irrational, insane even, but perhaps it’s a necessary mindset for this innovative region? Are there some entrepreneurs who genuinely want to make the world a better place, not for PR reasons, or to boost their social media following; but just for the sake of it? I attended the 19th annual SVForum Visionary Awards to explore the question.

This is my first report for the BBC World Service tech program, Click.

Listen at the BBC Click podcast (Silicon Valley segment starts at @13:33)

Here’s a transcript of the segment, edited for length and clarity:

Click Radio host, Gareth Mitchell: This is Click from the BBC in London. We talk about technology every week and Silicon Valley is often on the agenda. It’s the kind of place where if you’re a company CEO, and you clock up, say a billion users, most people would say, ‘well that’s incredible,’ but in Silicon Valley, people are likely to say, ‘Oh really?’ It’s almost like a billion seems like a small number, such is the ambition about that place. But Silicon Valley likes to tell us it does have a beating heart through its Visionary Awards and this is where the valley recognizes CEOs and developers who really do want to make the world a better place. From the awards, we have this report from Alison van Diggelen.

Alison van Diggelen: Talk of revolution was in the air in Silicon Valley last week at SVForum’s Visionary Awards. With past recipients like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Esther Dyson, these awards have earned a reputation as the Oscars of Silicon ValleySam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, welcomed guests…

Liccardo: In Silicon Valley we do a great job of innovating; we do a terrible job of celebrating. And it’s important that we stop every once in a while and recognize those who’ve been leading the way and perhaps allow them to inspire us.

van Diggelen: Jennifer Palka is one of this year’s visionary award winners and wants to inspire a revolution by transforming the relationship of the American people with their government. She’s founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that leverages the innovative power of SV technology to help make government work more efficiently, cheaply and openly.

Jen Pahkla, Code for America, interview by Alison van DiggelenPahlka: We’ve been trying to make the guts of government… as sexy as making Facebook. People are buying it… by coming into government, they can change the world.

van Diggelen: Remarkably, Code for America has managed to attract many top techies from companies like Apple, Adobe and Google who apply the SV playbook to government.

Pahlka:  We believe that government can work better “for the people and by the people” in the 21st Century…the thing we are doing is bringing the practices of SV – user centered, iterative and data-driven approaches to solving problems – into government…by asking people to come and do a year of service.

van Diggelen: Code for America “fellows” make open source apps to address local issues. These are being scaled from local to national level. It’s now easier to apply for food stamps, connect with city hall via text, and get access to public records online. In San Jose, it helped inspire a (waste no food) app that helps hotels and restaurants redirect excess food to feed SV’s homeless. Pahlka’s innovative model has even been adopted by governments around the world. There’s a Code for Japan, Germany, South Africa, and Pakistan. But what really animates Pahlka is how it’s helping redefine SV’s role in the world.

Pahlka:  Silicon Valley gets bad rap – we’ve transformed the world, but increased the inequality in our country.

Silicon Valley isn’t just about wealth creation; it’s about bringing people into our institutions in a profoundly valuable way that connects to the history of our country.

van Diggelen: The history of the United States and the need for an open Internet was also top of visionary award winner Tom Wheeler’s mind. A former tech entrepreneur and VC, Wheeler is now Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which regulates US phone and cable companies; and fights for net neutrality on behalf of consumers and innovators. Wheeler describes broadband as a major driver of economic growth and likens it to coal during the industrial revolution.

Tom Wheeler talks net neutrality at SV Visionary Awards, photo by Alison van DiggelenWheeler: Broadband, high speed Internet is the essential “commodity” of the 21st Century… You can’t be in a situation where you’ve got gatekeepers deciding which innovators get on…

van Diggelen: The European Union is in the process of following a similar model.

But like many tech innovators, Wheeler has a long list of ambitions, including the fight for consumer privacy.

Wheeler: A network gets to see every place you go on the Internet, everything you do. In the phone world, they couldn’t sell that information without your permission. That doesn’t exist today for networks in the high speed Internet, so we’re proposing that it should. The consumer has right to say whether that information can be productized and sold by their network provider.

van Diggelen: As the celebrations come to a close, I asked serial entrepreneur, Kevin Surace to reflect on the evening.

Surace: We’re living in a time when the innovations are coming faster than we’ve ever seen – in the history of ever – we’re now seeing inventions as powerful as the fire or the wheel every month…the pace of innovation is unbelievable.

van Diggelen: A fitting end to an exuberant Silicon Valley evening, where everyone was pumped by the same revolutionary fervor: to make the world a better place.

Ambi –audience exuberance…fade out

Gareth Mitchell: Not that I want to bring the party down, but do they really want to make the world a better place? They might be nice people, but they’re running businesses, they’re pretty hard hearted entrepreneurs at the end of the day, aren’t they?

LJ Rich: There’s something called corporate social responsibility…it’s nice in a way that some companies would like to give back to the community, but it can’t hurt their social reputation, to be seen to be good, especially when you look at how a company’s social behavior is analyzed online and people will suffer if they’re behaving badly or in a way people aren’t impressed by. So yes, I think it’s very nice and altruistic, but there are always pluses to behaving in a responsible manner and some of these will definitely be impacting the bottom line.

Listen to the whole Click program, featuring reports on the future of the Internet; Wonderlab at London’s Science Museum; and a new virtual reality film called Valen’s Reef (about climate change’s impact on our oceans)




BBC Report: How to Get More Women in Tech?

BBC Report: How to Get More Women in Tech?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Why aren’t more women in tech? That was the main topic for discussion yesterday on BBC’s Business Matters. I shared my report from Google’s I/O conference, where almost one in four attendees were women. The Women Techmakers team managed to increase female attendance from 8% in 2013 to 23% this year. How did they do it and what can other companies learn from their strategy?

Listen to the podcast at the BBC World Service (Women discussion starts at 26:40) or use the clip below:

Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Have you thought how many women there are in the new high tech industries? Not enough is the general verdict. Have a quick listen to this:

Google CEO, Sundar Pichai: Welcome to Google I/O and welcome to Shoreline. It feels really nice and different up here. We’ve been doing it for many many years in Moscone and in fact we’ve been doing I/O for 10 years, but I feel we’re at a pivotal moment in terms of where we’re going as a company…. There are over 7,000 of you joining in person today.

BBC Host, Roger Hearing: That was the boss of Google, Sundar Pichai, opening a recent conference held near the tech giant’s headquarters in Mountain View, Silicon Valley. Alison, you were at that conference. Tell us more about it….

Alison van Diggelen: Google I/O is the annual Google developers’ conference. I/O stands for Input/Output and Innovation in the Open. It attracts thousands of developers from around the world who use Google’s open platforms, such as Android and Chrome, to build apps for your smartphone, smartwatch, or computer.

Google has been battling to increase the number of women in its tech teams, and I was pleased to see a decent number of women making presentations on the keynote stage. The company managed to triple the number of women attending the conference by partnering with other tech organizations like the Anita Borg Institute, Women Who Code and Hackbright academy.

At the conference, I spoke to Natalie Villalobos. She’s Google’s Head of Global Programs for “Women Techmakers.” I began by asking her WHY Google is seeking more women in tech…

Natalie Villalobos: We need everyone to contribute to make the most innovative technology. The more diverse voices we have, contributing, participating, and building the technology, the better technology we’re going to have…We always need more diverse voices at the table: for women, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities because the people building the tech should be as diverse as the people that the technology serves.

Alison van Diggelen: You went from 8% female attendance in 2013 to 23% this year, almost a quarter today. How did you do that?

Natalie Villalobos: ‘What could only Google do?‘ is a big rallying cry of my work and it was partnering with community organizations, locally, nationally and internationally to bring women to the conference, by providing travel grants, access to tickets and so we wanted to create these lasting partnerships…And one of the things we worked really hard at is how can we really engage women across the spectrum? We welcome all types of women: whether you identify as non-gender binary, women of color, Latinas…Also geographic diversity: We have women from South Africa, Taiwan, Tunisia, China…a lot are coming here to the U.S. for the first time for Google I/O.

Winnie Chen, Nancy Hang, Android auto team at Google IO 2016, Photo by Alison van DiggelenAlison van Diggelen: What makes you special, is it just deep pockets? (Google has earmarked $150M this year for its diversity programs)

Natalie Villalobos: We’re really looking at how we can engage and meet developers, designers and entrepreneurs wherever they are. Diversity and inclusion in the tech industry is not just in the United States. There are people all over the world who want to be here in this industry who can’t move to Silicon Valley. How can we meet them where they are and share our new platforms, our technologies?

People who can’t come to Mountain View can join a local extendedI/O event – I believe we have over 400. Our biggest this year is in Sri Lanka with over 2000 attendees. It’s about reshaping the industry and supporting people where they are.

Roger Hearing: Alison, we’ve heard this a lot before…there aren’t enough women involved in the high tech industry. But it doesn’t seem to get any better.

Alison van Diggelen: It seems to be moving in the right direction but it’s very slow going. I actually had the chance to speak with Sundar Pichai and he said that this is a long long road. He’s talking about 10 years, 15 years before they can get close to equality. It’s a pipeline issue, it’s a role model issue. There are inherent biases in companies that make it more difficult for women to get into tech companies and thrive in tech companies. He did point out an encouraging fact that at Stanford University in Silicon Valley, the most popular major is no longer Biology but Computer Science.  So anecdotal evidence like that says that perhaps we’re reaching a critical mass, perhaps a turning point, where women can feel at home in that geeky, computer science world.

Roger Hearing: Let me posit that maybe that’s because it’s Stanford…it’s California. Simon, let me come to you (in Singapore) In the high tech world where you are….where some of the most cutting edge stuff is going on. Are there many women involved?

Simon Long, The Economist: I’m struck when I visit multinationals (in Singapore) like Google and local startups how dominated they are by the young…and men. Alison put her finger on one of the main problems: who’s studying what at university? Who has the right skills? There are these ingrained prejudices…people recruit people like themselves.

Ellie Powers, Google interview by Alison van Diggelen for BBC Report May 2016Alison van Diggelen: The pipeline issue is not the whole excuse.  I did speak with Ellie Powers, a product manager at Google and she was on the keynote stage. It’s a lazy excuse, she says, “if you’re looking for gold, it’s rarer, you have to look a bit harder” and you have to figure out how find and connect with people outside your network. She put a challenge out there to Google and beyond for any company looking for women, in order to make a better team.

Roger Hearing: Perhaps the women are not there, they don’t want to do it? Is it a cultural bias?

Alison van Diggelen: I think there is a bias…there’s the stereotype of the geeky coder, but I think that’s changing. After being at that conference for an entire day, and seeing that one in four of the attendees were women. It was different from other tech conferences I’ve been at where if feels more like 10%.

Unconscious bias training will help. I think role models like Ellie Powers, up there on stage, wearing a dress, talking tech, being geeky…that will help get more young women to say, maybe coding is for me, maybe computer science is for me?

Roger Hearing: Simon, does it matter what the gender balance is?

Simon Long: I think it probably does…if everyone had equal access to do what they’re good at, the world would be a better place. As Alison says, if the problem is not just a pipeline one… If there are biases inhibiting women from doing as well as they might, then we’re all losing out.

Roger Hearing: If women were involved in designing the Apple Mac, would it be different, better?

Alison van Diggelen: Natalie’s point is relevant here: if your end product is for the world – 50% of which is women – you have to include women in the process. By attracting a more diverse employees base, you’ll get a better workforce. I talked with Steven Levy, a well-known tech author and he said, the days when a credible company can have an all-male conference or panel are just “way over” – it’s about sending a message to all people that they’re welcome. It’s about getting a better workforce and building better products. That’s the bottom line.

Read more about women in tech in Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

And find out more about The Anita Borg Institute

BBC Pick of the Week: Interview with Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse

BBC Pick of the Week: Interview with Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

This week, I was delighted to discover that my interview with Solar Impulse pilot and clean technology enthusiast, Bertrand Piccard was featured on BBC Radio 4’s program, “Pick of the Week.” The program is described as “a selection of highlights from the past week on BBC radio” and it certainly makes compelling listening. BBC Presenter Caz Graham‘s picks are an eclectic mix of audio-rich stories: everything from Chairman Mao to Bob Dylan; and swimming in the Thames to soaring in solar flight. You can listen to the full 45-minute podcast here. The Solar Impulse segment starts at 22:20 but if you start listening at 20:10, you’ll get a fuller context, as Graham links the clean technology mission to the ideals of the influential economist, E.F Schumacher.

Listen to the Solar Impulse Segment here: (Schumacher starts at 0:07 and Solar Impulse at 1:45)


Here’s a transcript of the segment (edited for length and clarity):

BBC Presenter: Now on Radio 4, with the best of the BBC Radio this week, here’s Caz Graham…

Caz Graham:Small is beautiful” challenged the idea of economies based on mass production. According to Schumacher, big isn’t always better….Leo Johnson tried to find out what Schumacher stands for and whether his ideas might be about to take off. He enlisted the help of Satish Kumar, founder of the Schumacher College.

Satish Kumar: We have been given these beautiful hands…they are like a miracle. What can we do with these hands? The word ‘poet’ means ‘to make’….’poiesis.’ In Schumacher’s view, we are all poets. If we make something with creativity and imagination, a garden can be poetry, dinner can be a work of poetry…Work is a source of pleasure and joy. Our philosophy of consumerism, of materialism, of disconnection, that humans are separate from nature…is the biggest problem…Financial wealth is only a means to an end. Real wealth is community, people, their skills, their talent, their imagination, their creativity…Real wealth is nature.

Caz Graham, BBC Presenter for Radio 4's Pick of the WeekCaz Graham:  It all sounds marvelous in theory, but what about in practice? You need people to channel that imagination and creativity to deliver and develop the kind of world that Shumacher was aspiring to. Maybe people like Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg? They have a unique plane. It’s called the Solar Impulse. It has a wing span of 230 feet and it’s powered entirely by solar panels attached to those wings. They want to prove that this kind of clean technology really can work and could help solve our energy problems, so they’re currently flying it right around the world.

Alison van Diggelen caught up with them for the World Service’s Business Matters, during a recent stop over in Silicon Valley. This is Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand Piccard: You know, I never have enough of flying that plane or seeing it flying…when you see those four electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. Thanks to new technologies, the future is already today.

Alison van Diggelen: What for you is the biggest game changer?

Bertrand Piccard: The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last century. It’s not only about protecting the environment, it’s a lot about making money, new industrial markets, economic development, profit, job creation. These clean technologies can be used for electrical mobility, LED lights, smartgrids. …. Maybe Solar Impulse is a way to try to overcome the resistance of the dinosaurs who have not yet understood where the future is.

Alison van Diggelen: You’re an entrepreneur, as is Andre (Borschberg). What do you say to these naysayers?

Bertrand Piccard: I tell them: be really careful because innovation does not come from inside the system. It’s not the people selling the candles who invented the lightbulb. What you’re doing now will be replaced. If you want to innovate be a pioneer…change your way of thinking. Dinosaurs disappeared, they were the strongest one, but the less flexible one to adaptation.

Caz Graham: Bertrand Piccard, speaking on the World Service.


Check out more Pick of the Week programs at BBC Radio 4

Find out more about the Solar Impulse team at Fresh Dialogues – Is this a Kitty Hawk moment for Clean Technologies?

Follow the Solar Impulse journey around the world

BBC Report: Solar Impulse Flight, A Kitty Hawk Moment For Clean Tech?

BBC Report: Solar Impulse Flight, A Kitty Hawk Moment For Clean Tech?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

On Thursday, May 12th at 3 am PST, the Solar Impulse plane leaves Phoenix, Arizona on the 11th leg of its journey, bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Solar Impulse is attempting to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed over two-third of the epic journey. As well as breaking records for solar flight, this odyssey shines a spotlight on the many business opportunities that clean technologies offer.

Last month, Solar Impulse flew from Hawaii and arrived here in Silicon Valley. I interviewed both pilots at Moffett Field for a BBC World Service Report. Known as “ambassadors for a clean future,” they shared their vision for a cleaner, more efficient future:

I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those four electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. You don’t have to be ecological anymore, just logical!” Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand Piccard interview w Alison van Diggelen for BBC May 2 2016Piccard is Co-Pilot, Explorer and Solar Impulse Chairman. He’s also a psychiatrist, and a United Nations Environmental Program Goodwill Ambassador.

“We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. It’s all about energy efficiency. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy consumptions by at least 50%.” Andre Borschberg

Andre Borschberg & Alison van Diggelen Hangar One Moffett Field for BBC, Photo by Fresh DialoguesAndre Borchberg is Co-Pilot, MIT Engineer and Solar Impulse CEO

On May 10th, my report aired on the BBC World Service program, Business Matters and I was invited to share some more juicy details on the live show. My report was selected as a special Audio Clip: Listen here

Listen to the BBC podcast of the report and discussion here (May 9th podcast titled “Duterte Claims Victory” @26:50).

Here’s a transcript of the discussion (edited for length and clarity):

BBC Host, Fergus Nicoll:  After an unexpected nine-month delay, a solar-powered aircraft aiming to complete a round-the-world voyage is back in business. Check out their website … it’s got a snappy update for you on the front page – “We are in Phoenix!” Alison has prepared a report for us – talking to the two pilots who’ve been steering this epic journey so far.  – so Alison before we play in the piece, set the ground for us – where did you meet the team – what have they achieved so far – and why the big delay?

Alison van Diggelen: It’s a very interesting story, especially if you cover clean tech. Last Monday, I got up at 3 am to watch the Solar Impulse take off from Moffett Field here in SV, bound for Phoenix AZ. I talked with the two pilots who take turns on each flight. They’re attempting to fly around the world, powered entirely by solar energy. They left Abu Dhabi in March 2015, and are two-thirds of their way around.

Bertrand Piccard, one of the pilots told me: you don’t change the world with just an idealistic approach, you change the world if you have practical & profitable solutions. So they’re really pushing this clean energy, energy consumption message. They say we could reduce our energy consumption here by over 50% if we used the clean energy and energy efficiency techniques on that airplane.  One of biggest potential business opportunities is solar powered airplanes replacing satellites in the sky

BBC Report: Solar Impulse Plane Brings Clean Tech Message Around World 

By Alison van Diggelen

Ambi on runway at Moffett Field, Silicon Valley

Elke Neumann : Clearance from the tower

Alison van Diggelen: The propellers are starting very slowly, but they’re about to take off…you can hear the propellers….It’s in the air…

Elke Neumann: It’s in the air. Woo hooo hooo!

Alison van Diggelen: All we can see is a line of lights in the sky and it looks like it’s barely moving, just floating there, about 1000 feet off the runway.

Last week, the Solar Impulse plane took off from Moffett Field in SV. Its mission is to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed about 2/3rds of that journey, flying from Abu Dhabi across Asia to Hawaii last year. The team plans to reach NY by June and cross the Atlantic this summer.

The plane has the weight of a family car, but the wingspan of a 747, covered with 17,000 solar panels. I talked with Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss explorer and one of the two pilots who’s taking turns in the cockpit.

Bertrand Piccard: I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those 4 electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. Thanks to new technologies, the future is already today.

Alison van Diggelen: What for you is the biggest game changer?

Bertrand Piccard: The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. It’s not only about protecting the environment, it’s a lot about making money, new industrial markets, economic development, profit, job creation. These clean techs can be used for electrical mobility, LED lights, smartgrids. It’s a complete demonstration of everything we need in our society…. Maybe Solar Impulse is a way to try to overcome the resistance of the dinosaurs who have not yet understood where the future is.

Bertrand Piccard: What do you say to these naysayers?

Bertrand Piccard: I tell them: be really careful because innovation does not come from inside the system. It’s not the people selling the candles who invented the lightbulb. What you’re doing now will be replaced. If you want to innovate be a pioneer… change your way of thinking. Dinosaurs disappear, they were the strongest one, but the less flexible one to adaptation.

Alison van Diggelen: Andre Borschberg, piloted the Japan to Hawaii flight, an epic 5 day, 5 night journey. He explains that Solar Impulse is like a “laboratory in the sky” and is excited about its multiple tech spinoffs.

Paige Kassalen interview w Alison van Diggelen for BBC Solar Impulse

Paige Kassalen is part of the Solar Impulse ground crew and works for Covestro, one of the clean tech companies developing lightweight, high efficiency solutions for the “flying laboratory.”

Borschberg: What we have today is an airplane which can fly day and night, a week, a month, non stop …It’s totally sustainable in terms of energy, the limiting factor is the pilot… If we make it unmanned, an airplane can fly in stratosphere (above the bad weather) for 6 months, potentially replacing what satellites are doing, but cheaper in a flexible way…no pollution of space.

Alison van Diggelen: What made the journey even possible?

Andre Borschberg: We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy use by at least 50%. As it continues on its journey, the Solar Impulse team is striving to change the world, not just of aviation but of energy and communications too. You could call it a Kitty Hawk moment for the 21st Century.

Fergus Nicoll: I want to pick up on one or two of these ideas, the spinoff tech…start off with this amazing idea: the solar drones, solar powered unmanned vehicles in the stratosphere, a kind of neo-satellite…

Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. It was amazing to re-think satellites. Satellites cost up to $100M to produce, and then to launch them, it’s another $50M. So if you could do the same with a solar powered airplane, then there are huge cost savings available. Not only cost, but flexibility. These satellites go up for 7, maybe 15 years maximum, but two years into their journeys, the technology is old, whereas these solar powered airplanes could come down after six months and get repaired if necessary and get the latest technology fitted to them. So there’s all sorts of applications like GPS navigation, communications…observations: deforestation,  climate change monitoring. They’ll probably have to make these solar airplanes even bigger to carry the massive payload.

Fergus Nicoll: Are other companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere watching this…to see what they can spinoff themselves?

Alison van Diggelen: Yes, in fact the solar panels – the 17,000 panels – on the planes wings are made by a Silicon Valley company, and I know of at least one other Silicon Valley solar company that would rather be on the wings. So I think this whole project is a catalyst for companies to say: hey, we want to be the No. 1, the most lightweight, the most efficient solar panel. The “flying laboratory” is stimulating other companies because it’s shining a spotlight on these clean technologies.

Find out about more cutting edge technologies: Hyperloop seeking a Kitty Hawk Moment

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