How to Change the World with Innovation Speaker Mick Ebeling


Exclusive Interview with: Mick Ebeling

Named one of the “50 Most Creative People” in the world, Mick Ebeling specializes in using imagination and technology to win small victories for humanity and inspire others to do the same. His non-profit engineering organization “Not Impossible Labs” invents open-sourced breakthrough technology to solve real world problems. Ebeling’s leadership and life-changing inventions have garnered him numerous accolades including a Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year Award and a Wired magazine’s Agent of Change Award.

The philosophy of “Not Impossible” has far more to do with your desire and intention around what you want to change, than it has to do with any kind of training or education you might have. Our fundamental belief around innovation is that innovation stems from something that has to change rather than something that you’re actually trained to change.

SPEAKING.COM: What does it take to be a great innovator?

EBELING: The philosophy of “Not Impossible” has far more to do with your desire and intention around what you want to change, than it has to do with any kind of training or education you might have. Our fundamental belief around innovation is that innovation comes from and stems from something that has to change rather than something that you’re actually trained to change.

The different things that we work on originate from our mission statement of “change the world through technology and story.” We emphasize “technology for the sake of humanity.” We look at the world’s problems, typically social issues, and ask, “How could technology in some way change or solve this? How we could solve a problem in a way that will be accessible to many people?”

In short, innovation for us originates from a problem or social issue that we feel must change, so we say “Geronimo”, jump in, and go for it.

SPEAKING.COM: How can businesses and schools teach creative thinking?

EBELING: I think it really starts with a fundamental understanding of the concept of experimentation: fail, fail, fail, succeed, and repeat as necessary. Failure is just part of the iterative process and we should teach people to jump into it head first rather than straying from it.

I think it’s much easier to do that in a school environment than a business environment. In the latter, you have to be able to give people that ability, that desire to jump in, to experiment, to skin their knees and then to get back up and iterate from there.

There are endless examples of historical figures that have long since died or icons who are still alive now and achieving fantastic, incredible, amazing and life changing things, but they always talk about their failures and how their failures led to their successes. So I think understanding that concept of experimentation is the core of creative thinking.

We never have that core expertise in-house at the start of our projects, but what we’re able to do is to align and coalesce people who have that ability and that expertise around something, as well as a cause and a purpose that they feel driven to help us solve.

SPEAKING.COM: Your motto is “Commit first, then figure it out.” How is that an effective approach to getting things done, especially for organizations that might be worried about delegating limited resources?

EBELING: For Not Impossible, we are the definition of limited resources. We don’t have large operating budgets or a large infrastructure. This approach stems from a burning desire we have to see something through that we know could be changed and that has to be changed. We never have that core expertise in-house at the start of our projects, but what we’re able to do is to align and coalesce people who have that ability and that expertise around something, as well as a cause and a purpose that they feel driven to help us solve. That’s how we’re able to scale and do what we do.

SPEAKING.COM: What criteria do you use to decide that you’re going to commit to something?

EBELING: Our mission statement is change the world through technology and story. We refer to things that must change as “absurdities”. When we find absurdities, we first ask, “Is there already a better solution out there to this?” And if there is, then we publicize that. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.

On the other hand, if we recognize that there isn’t a solution or the solution that exists is not accessible, then that’s one of our first criteria to committing. Can we actually do something? Do we see that there’s a need and a demand around creating an accessible solution?

Second, we ask ourselves, “What is the story?” Specifically, the lens that we look through when we tell stories is called “Help One, Help Many,” which means that by providing an accessible solution to one person, you are then able to share that story to inspire and promote further innovation and collaboration and scale that solution. We ask ourselves, “Who is the one?”

Those are the two milestones that we check off when we’re deciding to commit to something.

SPEAKING.COM: What are the qualities of a stellar collaborator?

EBELING: We approach every problem knowing that we are not the ones who have been educated to solve this problem, so for us, collaboration is 50% drive and 50% ego. We want to play with experts who have the knowledge within a particular field, but we also don’t want them to enter into our sandbox with the attitude of, “It’s my way or the highway” or “I’m the expert, and you should listen to me.” We welcome, encourage, and yearn for that expertise, but we’re also not bashful about challenging it and challenging the status quo, which is why we’re sometimes able to come up with solutions that have never been considered before.

Drive is so important because every single project we tackle goes through moments where we doubt we should do it or we doubt that we’re the right ones for the job. Yet we keep going because it’s not a question of whether or not we can stop.

SPEAKING.COM: How can people recognize and find good collaborators?

EBELING: I think that this is a classic law of attraction: like attracts like. If you are someone who is driven towards purpose without an ego, you attract other people like that. It’s very easy to recognize when someone is going to bring ego and too many opinions to the table but maybe not that crucial drive. Drive is so important because every single project we tackle goes through moments where we doubt we should do it or we doubt that we’re the right ones for the job. Yet we keep going because it’s not a question of whether or not we can stop. We’re driven by a higher purpose: to actually create something that’s going to change someone else’s life. For us, failure is not an option.

SPEAKING.COM: One of your organization’s goals is to ensure that the technology you create is accessible to those who need it. What steps do you take to ensure that your inventions will be affordable as possible?

EBELING: Accessibility is the core to everything that we create. That whole concept and distinction of accessibility was derived from our first invention that we created called the EyeWriter, which was a pair of sunglasses, a coat hanger, some duct tape, zip ties, and a web camera. A paralyzed artist was able to put that on, and in looking straight ahead, the web camera tracked his pupils. By moving his eyes back and forth, he could then control a cursor on the screen, which allowed this paralyzed artist to draw again for the first time in seven years.

When we released that, it was a smash success and received all kinds of accolades and notoriety. We then released it open source, which was really important to us, because we felt that was the way that people would be able to access it. That’s how this device would be able to change many lives.

We learned from that experience that while open source is one avenue towards accessibility, it’s not the only one. In hindsight, had we offered that device as a solution that people could buy online, we strongly believe we would have had a greater influence. We would have been able to affect more lives had we opted for making this thing and putting it into a micro, mass production environment.

We learned quickly then, that sometimes accessibility doesn’t look the way that you want it to look. It’s really just a question of “how do you give people the ability to have access to the devices that you’re making?” So as we go through the design process we ask at every step:

  • How do we make this more affordable?
  • Are we creating something that’s more complicated than it needs to be?

    And our overarching premise:

  • How do we keep performance at the high and price at the low?
    We started winning all these awards, doing Ted Talks, and now it’s even part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York. When we saw the reaction we got, we said to ourselves, “Wow, this is something that has obviously resonated deeply for people. Maybe this is something that we should continue.”

    SPEAKING.COM: You had a successful career in the movie business. How did you go from creating film graphics to inventing the EyeWriter and starting Not Impossible?

    EBELING: Not Impossible was a natural evolution rather than a premeditated one from my career in production into this concept we now have of being a social hacker, maker, punk rock engineer, and do-gooder. That evolution came from seeing the results of what we were able to create with the EyeWriter, which was made purely just to try to help this one particular artist, Tempt One, draw again. However, it went viral. People were talking about it. We started winning all these awards, doing Ted Talks, and now it’s even part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York. When we saw the reaction we got, we said to ourselves, “Wow, this is something that has obviously resonated deeply for people. Maybe this is something that we should continue.”

    Ultimately though, we decided at the time to just go ahead about our day jobs and keep doing what we were doing.

    That changed when we got an email from Tempt that said, “This is the first time I’ve drawn anything for seven years. I feel like I’ve been held under water and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up so I could take a breath.”

    Getting that email and that feeling that we were able to create and generate for this artist was so euphoric and special for us that we launched Not Impossible.

    Now we go about looking at the world through this lens of technology for the sake of humanity. I draw on so many of the skills that I learned from being a producer, like tackling these impossible projects and just figuring out how to come in under budget and on time. Constantly tackling these things is what drives the overall culture of Not Impossible.

    When you’re driven on why something has to happen and you actually have a person – a “one” in that concept of “help one help many” – it makes it incredibly hard to give up because you see the face of the finish line – the face of a human being.

    SPEAKING.COM: Project Daniel’s mission was to create prosthetic limbs for a boy who lost both his arms in a bombing in Sudan. In your Ted Talk you mentioned that everything that could go wrong with the project did. How did you manage to keep motivating yourself and your team in the midst of so many set backs?

    EBELING: When you’re driven on why something has to happen and you actually have a person – a “one” in that concept of “help one help many” – it makes it incredibly hard to give up because you see the face of the finish line – the face of a human being. Although everything went wrong in Sudan – from electricity surges to malfunctioning of 3D printers, from travel delays to the cease fire ending and being in a situation that was a hot zone – we knew we were there to solve the problem for Daniel. We knew that achieving a solution for Daniel could lead to achieving a solution for many more people. We stayed driven because we knew “the one” – a real individual – and we were constantly driving to solve for that one.

    SPEAKING.COM: Could you share a little bit about some of the projects Not Impossible is working on?

    EBELING: We have a variety of different projects we’re working on. We have a hunger initiative that is actually using cell phone technology to drive people who live in a food insecure environment to healthy meals. We have a device that we’re creating around kids with cerebral palsy that can help rehabilitate them and walk without crutches. We have an initiative that helps the deaf experience music through their skin. We have an initiative that’s helping people with Parkinson’s stop their tremors without having to take any pharmaceuticals. We have a variety of different projects right now that we’re working on and we’re incredibly excited and having a lot of fun on all of them.

    To bring innovation keynote speaker Mick Ebeling to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on June 17, 2018

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