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(November 16, 2000, Gazette)

Angel Lecture
A great sense of the nonsensical

Burt RutanBurt Rutan

By Susen Johnson

Chaos, crisis, goals, and money. This gospel, touted by this year's F.W. Angel Memorial lecturer, is the exact mix advocated frequently by artists and arts groups worldwide. And is it any surprise? He's a champion of creativity, originality, and breakthrough design.

Burt Rutan, the founder of the renowned Rutan Aircraft Factory and Scaled Composites Inc., told a packed house at the Engineering building that managers in engineering would do well to create an atmosphere where workers are free to have fun, experiment, and take risks, without the constant worry of reporting to authorities or defending the product. In fact, Mr. Rutan argued, it is precisely the spirit of risk-aversity that creates danger in design, stifling engineers and other creators from losing face by questioning their product and potentially improving it. He said the rule should be never to defend the product.

"I have an organization of about 130 people, and we've developed over the past 28 years a new airplane type – a brand new type from scratch – on the average of one every year. So we do that more often, in terms of having a first flight of a new type of airplane, more often than the rest of the industry combined. We have a lot of fun."

Speaking on the topic Breakthroughs – how, when, and why they happen, Mr. Rutan suggested instead that those who would be truly successful embrace the spirit of entrepreneurialism by putting money into projects staffed with talented people…and then stepping away.

"If you think you are the world's best manager, and you've gone to Harvard and you know how to manage people . . . your only task is to go out and find the money, set the goal, and get out of the way.

"Let the innovator decide the acceptability of the risk."

Drawing on examples from American history, he argued that discontent and political instability can feed creativity – in other words, we design what we need when we need it.

He also shared his passion for personal air travel, arguing that today's passenger airliners will become obsolete in the face of evolving technology making personal aircrafts as common, affordable, and as easy to operate as cars.

"This whole plan is to build a transportation system such that you don't have to use the airlines — very much how we prefer to use personal cars rather than the Greyhound.

"It is possible."

Mr. Rutan and his wife, Tonya, who traveled to Newfoundland from their home in the Mojave Desert in California, insisted they were enjoying their stay, despite the persistent rain, drizzle, and fog.

"Please, don't apologize for the weather. Where we come from, it never rains from April to September, and kids are let out of school for it when it does."

He regaled the crowd of students, professors, and local business leaders with tales of his personal experiences working with NASA, the US Air Force, and the America's Cup challenge. In just one anecdote, Mr. Rutan explained how he assuaged Dennis Connors' concerns about structural breakdown with the reply, "We make wings for aircraft. If a wing breaks, you die."

Mr. Rutan also showed images from the ultralight car he designed — one weighing only 420 pounds — and exhibited an image of the Toyota Research Aircraft he worked on — the aeronautical equivalent of the Lexus LS400 automobile.

He suggested that breakthroughs are a consequence of factors such as survival, competition, and even embarrassment, and argued that researchers must have confidence in nonsense — the guts to try things that may not work. He also predicted that the great discoveries of the last 30 years, such as molecular manufacturing, virtual reality, and improvements in communication are not the breakthroughs themselves, but the enablers of a “super renaissance” to come.

But most importantly, he argued, researchers must enjoy what they're doing.

"If it's something that gives you fun that you wouldn't have had, then I like to think of that as a breakthrough. Fun is what gives engineers and scientists the motivation to invent and create."

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