ZEROe … Airbus’ bold vision to create a zero-emission future for the world of air travel … Hydrogen fuel cells, Shark fin wings, and more.

March 23, 2023

Airbus is today the world’s largest manufacturer of airport – and seeks to shape the future, as a global pioneer in the aerospace – operating in the commercial aircraft, helicopters, defence and space sectors.

The Toulouse-based organisation has always been at the forefront of innovating new technologies, with a pioneering spirit that has redefined the aerospace industry. Airbus has a purpose defined as to “pioneer sustainable aerospace for a safe and united world.”

It’s a great aspiration, not just a responsibility, but inspiring too. It’s about “bringing people closer together, helping them unite and progress”. It’s about striving to “continually push the boundaries on what is possible to safeguard our world for future generations.”

Airbus is a leader in designing, manufacturing and delivering aerospace products, services and solutions to customers on a worldwide scale. With around 130,000 employees and as the largest aeronautics and space company in Europe and a worldwide leader, Airbus is at the forefront of the aviation industry.

It builds the most innovative commercial aircraft and consistently capture about half of all commercial airliner orders. This is built on a deep understanding of changing market needs, customer focus and technological innovation, to offer products that connect people and places via air and space.

Zero emission hydrogen-fuelled aircraft by 2035.

Cut to the chase. Air travel is one of the world’s largest contributors to carbon emissions. Every flight we add to our guilt, but continue to seek to stay physically connected in a changing world. Like driving our cars, not doing it feels unrealistic, let alone commercially disastrous to the leading commercial players. Instead every traveller, every airline company, every government, seeks a rapid reinvention of the industry.

We now see the rapid shift to electric cars, initially incentivised by government incentives, but now by a whole new generation of sexy EVs, plus the improving battery range and charging networks to support them. Similarly we see the shift in fashion, every store now packed with clothing from responsible or recycling materials. Or in food, the shift to organic, plant-based or eco-packaged products.

Not just to reduce our negative impacts, but to find new positive impacts too – to boost our wellbeing, to feel and look good, to be cool. Airbus, and indeed the entire air travel industry has a similar challenge. Yes to decarbonise, to find guilt free ways in which we can travel, but also to live better, to connect, to protect, and commercially to thrive in a world of change.

Creating a roadmap to a better future.

Spending some time with the strategy teams of Airbus in Toulouse this week, I started to appreciate the broad range of investments and initiatives not just to survive as an industry, but to create a better future too. While decarbonisation is essential, exploring and connecting the world is our choice. While purpose articulates a well-meaning intent, a roadmap of practical innovations makes it real, believable, and also exciting.

Wings are a great source of innovation. One recent prototype “bird of prey” design is a hybrid-electric, turbo-propeller aircraft for regional air transportation. It mimics the eagle’s wing and tail structure, and features individually controlled feathers that provide active flight control. In another project vertical wing-tip extensions resemble a shark’s dorsal fin significantly reduce the size of the wingtip vortex, thus reducing induced drag. Today, all members of the A320neo Family are fitted with sharklets as a standard.

Glenn Llewellyn is one of Airbus’ many hidden pioneers, creating the future of air travel. As vice president of the manufacturer’s ZEROe flight project – which Airbus says will get zero-emission hybrid-hydrogen aircraft to the market by 2035 – there’s a lot riding on his success. The aviation industry’s decarbonization roadmap reckons that more efficient, low- and zero-emission planes could account for 37 percent of the sector’s carbon emission reductions by 2050.  He’s an inspiring, laid back guy, but with a passion to create a better future, for Airbus and all of us.

New strategies for new futures

We live in a time of great promise but also great uncertainty.

Markets are more crowded, competition is intense, customer aspirations are constantly fuelled by new innovations and dreams. Technology disrupts every industry, from banking to construction, entertainment to healthcare. It drives new possibilities and solutions, but also speed and complexity, uncertainty and fear.

As digital and physical worlds fuse to augment how we live and work, AI and robotics enhance but also challenge our capabilities, whilst ubiquitous supercomputing, genetic editing and self-driving cars take us further.

Technologies with the power to help us leap forwards in unimaginable ways. To transform business, to solve our big problems, to drive radical innovation, to accelerate growth and achieve progress socially and environmentally too.

We are likely to see more change in the next 10 years than the last 250 years.

  • Markets accelerate, 4 times faster than 20 years ago, based on the accelerating speed of innovation and diminishing lifecycles of products.
  • People are more capable, 825 times more connected than 20 years ago, with access to education, unlimited knowledge, tools to create anything.
  • Consumer attitudes change, 78% of young people choose brands that do good, they reject corporate jobs, and see the world with the lens of gamers.

However, change goes far beyond the technology.

Markets will transform, converge and evolve faster. From old town Ann Arbor to the rejuvenated Bilbao, today’s megacities like Chennai and the future Saudi tech city of Neom, economic power will continue to shift. China has risen to the top of the new global business order, whilst India and eventually Africa will follow.

Industrialisation challenges the natural equilibrium of our planet’s resources. Today’s climate crisis is the result of our progress, and our problem to solve. Globalisation challenges our old notions of nationhood and locality. Migration changes where we call home. Religious values compete with social values, economic priorities conflict with social priorities. Living standards improve but inequality grows.

Our current economic system is stretched to its limit. Global shocks, such as the global pandemic of 2020, exposes its fragility. We open our eyes to realise that we weren’t prepared for different futures, and that our drive for efficiency has left us unable to cope. Such crises will become more frequent, as change and disruption accelerate.

However, these shocks are more likely to accelerate change in business, rather than stifle it, to wake us up to the real impacts of our changing world – to the urgency of action, to the need to think and act more dramatically.

The old codes don’t work

Business is not fit for the future. Most organisations were designed for stable and predictable worlds, where the future evolves as planned, markets are definitive, and choices are clear.

The future isn’t like it used to be.

Dynamic markets are, by definition, turbulent. Whilst economic cycles have typically followed a pattern of peaks and troughs every 10-15 years, these will likely become more frequent.  Change is fast and exponential, uncertain and unpredictable, complex and ambiguous demanding new interpretation and imagination.

Yet too many business leaders hope that the strategies that made them successful in the past will continue to work in the future. They seek to keep stretching the old models in the hope that they will continue to see them through. Old business plans are tweaked each year, infrastructures are tested to breaking point, and people are asked to work harder.

In a way of dramatic, unpredictable change, this is not enough to survive, let alone thrive.

  • Growth is harder. Global GDP growth has declined by more than a third in the past decade. As the west stagnates, Asia grows, albeit more slowly.
  • Companies struggle, their average lifespan falling from 75 years in 1950 to 15 years today, 52% of the Fortune 500 in 2000 no longer exist in 2020.
  • Leaders are under pressure. 44% of today’s business leaders have held their position for at least 5 years, compared to 77% half a century ago.

Profit is no longer enough; people expect business to achieve more. Business cannot exist in isolation from the world around them, pursuing customers without care for the consequence. The old single-minded obsession with profits is too limiting. Business depends more than ever on its resources – people, communities, nature, partners – and will need to find a better way to embrace them.

Technology is no longer enough; innovation needs to be more human. Technology will automate and interpret reality, but it won’t empathise and imagine new futures. Ubiquitous technology-driven innovation quickly becomes commoditised, available from anywhere in the world, so we need to add value in new ways. The future is human, creative, and intuitive. People will matter more to business, not less.

Sustaining the environment is not enough. 200 years of industrialisation has stripped the planet of its ability to renew itself, and ultimately to sustain life. Business therefore needs to give back more than it takes. As inequality and distrust have grown in every society, traditional jobs are threatened by automation and stagnation, meaning that social issues will matter even more, both globally and locally.

The new DNA of business

As business leaders, our opportunity is to create a better business, one that is fit for the future, that can act in more innovative and responsible ways.

How can we harness the potential of this relentless and disruptive change, harness the talents of people and the possibilities of technology? How can business, with all its power and resources, be a platform for change, and a force for good?

We need to find new codes to succeed. We need to find new ways to work, to recognise business as a system that be virtuous, where less can be more, and growth can go beyond the old limits. This demands that we make new connections:

  • Profit + Purpose … to achieve more enlightened progress
  • Technology + Humanity … to achieve more human ingenuity
  • Innovation + Sustainability … to achieve more positive impact

We need to create a new framework for business, a better business – to reimagine why and redesign how we work, as well as reinvent what and refocus where we do business.

Imagine a future business that looks forwards not back, that rises up to shape the future on its own terms, making sense of change to find new possibilities, inspiring people with vision and optimism. Imagine a future that inspires progress, seeks new sources of growth, embraces networks and partners to go further, and enables people to achieve more.

Imagine too, a future business that creates new opportunity spaces, by connecting novel ideas and untapped needs, creatively responding to new customer agendas. Imagine a future business that disrupts the disruptors, where large companies have the vision and courage to reimagine themselves and compete as equals to fast and entrepreneurial start-ups.

Imagine a future business that embraces humanity, searches for better ideas, that fuse technology and people in more enlightened ways, to solve the big problems of society, and improve everyone’s lives. Imagine a future business that works collectively, self-organises to thrive without hierarchy, connects with partners in rich ecosystems, designs jobs around people, to do inspiring work.

Imagine also, a future business which is continually transforming, that thrives by learning better and faster, develops a rich portfolio of business ideas and innovations to sustain growth and progress. Imagine a future business that creates positive impact on the world, benefits all stakeholders with a circular model of value creation, that addresses negatives, and creates a net positive impact for society.

Creating a better business is an opportunity for every person who works inside or alongside it. It is not just a noble calling, to do something better for the world, but also a practical calling, a way to overcome the many limits of today, and attain future success for you and your business.You could call it the dawn of a new capitalism.

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