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What would Elon Musk do about Eskom?

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake/

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake/

Published Jul 10, 2022

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OPINION: There’s more to issues at Eskom than technical issues. There are procurement issues that get tangled into government regulations and then there are labour issues that also need constant attention, writes Wesley Diphoko.

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South Africans for the first time in recent days experienced Stage 6 of load shedding which involved four hours without electricity daily.

This prompted a South African musician Keenan Forbes “AKA” to tweet: “Excuse me Sir … @elonmusk … I cannot for the life of me understand why the government hasn’t approached you to come help us out with this electricity crisis, but is there any chance you could perhaps do us a solid, you know, with your being born here and all?”

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In another Tweet, the musician said: “Please @elonmusk I know you have a solution for load shedding … do it for your country … your original one”.

There’s no indication that Elon Musk has taken this call seriously.

What is known is how Musk has approached public innovation projects of a complex nature. In one instance, it can be argued that he gave birth to a new form of transportation system, the Hyperloop. This is a high-speed transportation system for public and goods transport.

The term was popularised by Musk to describe a modern project based on the vactrain concept (which first appearance 1799). Hyperloop designs employ three essential components: tubes, pods and terminals.

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The tube is a large sealed, low-pressure system (usually a long tunnel). The pod is a coach pressurised at atmospheric pressure that runs substantially free of air resistance or friction inside this tube, using magnetic propulsion (in some cases augmented by a ducted fan).

The terminal handles pod arrivals and departures. The Hyperloop, in the initial form proposed by Musk, differs from vactrains by relying on residual air pressure inside the tube to provide lift by aerofoils and propulsion by fans.

Musk proposed this after experiencing traffic jams in Los Angeles, US. To make it a reality, he called on the wisdom of the crowds. He did this by initially writing a paper outlining the problem statement. Secondly, he conducted a competition, the Hyperloop Pod Competition.

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It was an annual competition sponsored by SpaceX and The Boring Company from 2015–2019, in which student teams and hobbyists participated to design and build a subscale prototype transport vehicle, demonstrating the technical feasibility of various aspects of the Hyperloop concept.

What’s interesting about the Hyperloop project is that the Virgin Group was inspired to create their version in the form of Virgin Hyperloop.

SpaceX, Boring Company, and Virgin Group have some form of artefacts to show about this form of transportation system.

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On a grander scale, Musk is funding the X-PRIZE ($10 million, about R167m), which is another form of tapping into the wisdom of the crowds to solve the biggest challenges in society.

The common thread in all these approaches by the greatest tech entrepreneur of our times is that when necessary, he calls upon the greatest thinkers and innovators around the globe.

He does not rely on himself to come up with all solutions. He also realises that the SpaceX, Tesla, and Boring Company executives do not have all the wisdom for complex challenges.

He reaches out to the best minds globally by open-sourcing a solution.

Musk would probably open source the Eskom challenge to innovators, engineers and other leaders. He would document the problem clearly in the form of a paper and put it out there in public.

This would allow every smart person around the globe with a solution to document what they would do under current circumstances. In the end, the best solution would be funded and implemented.

No one can deny that the current leadership at Eskom is working hard to resolve the biggest challenge facing South Africa.

At this stage, this challenge seems larger for just a team of executives at Eskom. Not even a replacement of its chief executive would resolve the issue.

Eskom has an opportunity to call on the wisdom of the crowds. The challenge facing Eskom needs the best minds not just in South Africa, but globally.

With the country is already limping due to Stage 4 load shedding, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter has warned that the country might experience Stage 6 power cuts. Picture: Cape Town, by Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Of course, there’s more to issues at Eskom than technical issues. There are procurement issues that get tangled into government regulations, and then there are labour issues that also need constant attention.

Lastly, there are leadership issues that are about the need for a leader who can rally the troops. Someone with the necessary influence and respect of his peers to move the organisation with one goal in mind.

All of these issues are complex but can be easily resolved by an ideal leader. The most complex issue is the technical one, which requires engineers who can really turn the situation around.

It is this kind of challenge that needs the smartest minds around the globe.

These people exist in some of the best universities, companies and organisations around the world. They are waiting to share their skills, know-how and expertise.

This is how the world managed to get vaccines with speed. It was not an effort of a single company, individual, or just a group of executives within a single entity. It was a global effort spearheaded by the World Health Organization which called on the wisdom of the crowds.

* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine.

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