Collaboration and Social Alchemy on the High Seas


Right now, somewhere out at sea, a cruise-liner packed with some of technology’s most creative thinkers and doers is circumnavigating the globe. Over the course of their 106-day voyage, the rotating cast of innovators, investors and commentators on board – including 11 leaders from the Microsoft Xbox team – will roll up their sleeves and put their brains to work developing smart solutions to tough global problems.

This is Unreasonable@Sea, a truly unique experiment in global entrepreneurship designed by Daniel Epstein, founder of the Unreasonable Institute, along with George Kembel, co-founder of Stanford’s, and Semester at Sea, in partnership with Xbox and others.

Video: What is Unreasonable At Sea?

Now that the voyage is well underway, we reached out to Daniel Epstein to hear about the trip so far. Read what he had to say below.

Posted by Steve Wiens
Guest Editor, The Official Microsoft Blog

We are at the very beginnings of the inaugural voyage of Unreasonable at Sea. This program is a truly radical experiment in the power of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship to solve the hardest problem sets of our time. The uncommon angle to the program is that we are doing this on a ship as it sails over 25,000 nautical miles and ports in 13 countries over the course of 100 days.

Now that we are a few weeks into the voyage, we are beginning to see the Unreasonable community coalesce. The foundational goal of the program is to create the conditions in which productive collisions between unlikely people and ideas flourish. As I write this post, I can’t help but smile. I can now say with confidence that the community has come together in this way and that nowhere else is it better seen than between our Learning Partners and the entrepreneurs on the ship.

I feel it is important to highlight the genesis of this experiment and why it is we have taken to the high seas. I think the best place to start is with a story from the past.

I was recently told a story of an organization called the Highlander Institute. The Highlander Institute existed in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s and its stated mission was to “combat the greatest social ills of its time.” In the mid-20th century and based out of the American south, it identified the challenges of racial inequity and racism as the grand challenges of its time. What most people don’t know is that both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., are believed to have trained at the Highlander Institute for months before they went out on their campaigns for social action. For its stated mission and in the time that it existed, the Highlander Institute was remarkably successful. I firmly believe we ought to deconstruct why the Highlander Institute was so successful, then reconstruct an Institute of similar intention but designed to combat the challenges of our time.

We live in a world today where just shy of 1 billion people live on less than US$1 a day and another billion don’t have access to clean drinking water. In short, I believe we desperately need a Highlander Institute for the 21st century. This is our goal with the Unreasonable Institute and what we’re reaching towards on Unreasonable at Sea.

To make the kind of impact that the Highlander Institute made, it’s important that we apply a 21st-century mindset. At Unreasonable, we have three key beliefs that are unique to our program.

  1. Must be global: The first is that the issues we face today are no longer regional, national or bound by borders. The challenges of the 21st century are wildly interconnected and global by nature. This is why we source our entrepreneurs from all corners of the globe and this is why Unreasonable at Sea is sailing over 25,000 nautical miles and porting in 13 countries. We believe our lens must be relentlessly international.
  2. Must be market-based: Highlander Institute believed that social action was our most powerful tool for affecting change, and in the mid-20th century this may have been the case. Today, we believe the most powerful tool in our tool belt is no longer social activism or political action. Instead, it is enterprise. On a personal level, I’m very much a capitalist. This is not because I care about money or that I believe in the value of greed… Instead it is because I firmly believe that profits are our most effective driver of innovation and invention and that markets are our best avenue for scale.
  3. Can’t be landlocked: Lastly, we believe the Highlander Institute for the 21st century can no longer be landlocked… it needs to be mobile, and it must have the ability to step into new international markets in an effort to gain empathy on the ground.

So why are we on a ship? I think the most compelling element of the Highlander Institute was its ability to gather and mentor incredibly compelling leaders in one place and under one roof. It’s this level of social alchemy that we are striving for with Unreasonable at Sea.

We have brought together entrepreneurs who are solving problems we didn’t think were solvable, working in markets we have yet to penetrate, and leveraging technologies we didn’t know existed. But uniting these black swan startups and these frontline innovators isn’t enough. I believe these bottom-up solutions, although incredibly necessary, are not sufficient in solving our problems fast enough. Instead, we must also collaborate and work with some of the largest companies and organizations on earth: companies like Microsoft.

Now that we are a few weeks into our voyage, I want to share an example of how this collaboration is coming together. When the ship was setting sail from Shanghai to Hong Kong, one of our mentors, Tom Chi, an engineer from a company that has the most efficient solar concentrator on Earth, and Bernhard Kotzenberg from the Xbox team decided to start collaborating. They spent the 36-hour stretch from Shanghai to Hong Kong rapidly prototyping new designs and structural setups for One Earth Designs’ Solar Concentrator. The goal was to bring down the cost of each unit as well as make them more structurally sound and lighter in weight. Amazingly, in just over a day, using nothing more than creativity and rudimentary prototyping supplies (i.e., tape and cardboard) they re-created the frame for the Solar Concentrator in a way that may lead to a design that is upwards of 10 times lighter and 2 times cheaper than the current model. The team at One Earth Designs is now staying an extra week in Hong Kong to put this prototype into production and really test the validity of it in the Chinese marketplace. What is most brilliant about this story is how unlikely the collaborators were. Tom Chi is a serial tech entrepreneur who has pioneered a unique approach to rapid prototyping, the founders of One Earth Designs are young MIT graduates working in remote regions of China, and Bernard is an incredible engineer working out of the Xbox team at Microsoft in Seattle. To imagine these three parties collaborating on a ship as it sails from Shanghai to Hong Kong and creating a prototype in less than two days that is now being taken to market… that to me is the type of collaboration and social alchemy we live for at Unreasonable.

Yet this level of collaboration doesn’t stop with the technologies and the startups on the ship. It also extends to the over 630 undergraduate students from over 250 universities who are sailing with us. Seeing a collaboration between global thought leaders, investors, some of the world’s most compelling tech startups, hundreds of university students and representatives of some of the largest companies on earth… to say it’s been humbling doesn’t say the half of it.

Watching our entrepreneurs, coming from every corner of the globe, begin to collaborate, partner and learn from the best of the Microsoft Xbox team has been nothing short of magical. What will come of all of this is still unknown, but it is this level of collaboration that will lead to solutions and technologies that future generations will remember as having defined progress in our time. It’s a real privilege.

-Daniel Epstein, Founder Seafaring CEO, Unreasonable At Sea.

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