An “Ingenious” Q&A with Jason Fagone
Jason Fagone ’01 is a former Penn Stater staff writer and still an occasional contributor to the magazine. We’d like it if he was a regular contributor, but we have some stiff competition for Jason’s services—namely, Wired (he’s a contributing editor) and Philadelphia (writer at large), not to mention GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and NewYorker.com.
Happily for us—and for Jason, of course—the latest of those pesky book projects is officially done. Tuesday marks the official on-sale date for Ingenious, his second book. Fagone describes it as “an old-fashioned tale of American invention” that follows the teams racing to win the Automotive X Prize, the $10-million incentive offered to anyone who could develop a mass-producible car capable of getting the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. The teams, and the personalities, are wildly diverse: Eccentric millionaires, Silicon Valley-backed geek squads, a group of average Joes who built a hyper-efficient car from scratch in a rural Illinois barn. (There also teams populated by high school and college students, which makes Ingenious a sibling of sorts to the Lunar Lion cover story in our Nov./Dec. issue.)
Having read an early proof over the summer, I can tell you Ingenious is a blast. You don’t have to be an engineer, or even all that interested in cars—I’m neither—to appreciate the cast of characters, the very real human drama, and Jason’s smart story telling (for a taste, you can read an excerpt on Slate). Below, our quick Q&A with Jason on why he wrote the book, what he learned, and what the story says about the present—and future—of American ingenuity.
Penn Stater: What inspired you to write Ingenious?
Fagone: I work in Philadelphia, and in early 2010, I heard about some students and teachers who make super-efficient hybrid cars at a high school in a poor section of West Philly. I thought that was interesting, so I went over to see them. And as soon as I walked into their garage, I knew there was a story here. The garage was an old-fashioned place, with safety signage right out of the ’50s, but then the kids were building these wild, futuristic hybrids. And they really seemed to know what they were doing. They’d beaten M.I.T. in similar competitions and believed they had a real shot at winning the $10 million X Prize.
I wanted to see what would happen next, so I kept going back to the garage, watching them work on the cars and plot strategy. And through the West Philly team, I was gradually introduced to this larger world of the X Prize—this event designed to champion the little guy, to let a lone inventor or a startup prove that they could solve a problem that Detroit had ignored for decades. That spoke to me. Because the big guys had failed in America. The big banks, General Motors, Chrysler. They’d ruined the economy and been bailed out at our expense. It seemed important to go looking for ideas in other places. And I wondered if these small teams could do it.
Penn Stater: What did you learn in reporting the book?
Fagone: I look at cars in a different way now. I used to see sleek machines. Now I see heavy, bloated boxes of metal and plastic that p*ss off the air. A lot of cars are basically couches from an aerodynamic standpoint, which is so stupid, because bad aerodynamics is lost MPGs. Good aero is free MPGs. But auto companies won’t make super-aerodynamic cars because they’re afraid consumers will think they look weird. Decision-making at auto companies is very fear-based. What I loved about the X Prize teams is how they rejected that thinking and charged ahead with designs that were based on science. The teams were doing the big, bold, radical work that the auto companies hesitate to do. And they were doing it with almost no money, risking everything they had. I found that inspiring.
Penn Stater: Our current cover story is a feature on the Penn State team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, a sister competition to the Automotive X Prize you follow in Ingenious. What, if anything, does this approach—corporations or wealthy individuals offering cash prizes to inspire innovation that is (apparently) otherwise not being funded or promoted—say about America’s historic place as fertile ground for inventors and dreamers?
Fagone: I quote Mark Twain in the book: “We are called the nation of inventors, and we are.” I quote some lines of Walt Whitman praising architects and engineers and mechanics. I talk about how Thomas Jefferson designed the American patent system. These guys were all interested in invention, and what interested them about invention was the democracy of it. Anyone can be an inventor. We all have these innate Promethean powers, and if we design the country in the right way, we can tap them. Now, we’ve gotten away from this idea in recent years, because when you think of an inventor who has influence in our current culture, who comes to mind? Probably it’s a coder in Silicon Valley, or Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and Space X—amazing dude, but a dot-com multimillionaire. These are rich elites. The X Prize approach is a throwback to an older, broader idea of invention, and I think the success of it proves that there’s an incredible amount of talent and ability out there, waiting to be tapped, if you just give people the right target to shoot for.
Penn Stater: You’ve got these sorts of prizes, Paul Allen has his Brain Institute, and then we’ve got a political environment in which funding any sort of innovation inevitably becomes a political issue. What’s your prediction on the future of how these sort of big-picture challenges are funded and solved?
Fagone: Incentive prizes are easy for a lot of different people to love. Libertarians and the Right tend to like them because they’re kind of the ultimate private-market solution: if you want to solve a problem in this country, you pay for it, right? Of course, there are things that prizes can’t do. I heard Glenn Beck say on the radio once that the Department of Education should be dissolved and replaced with an X Prize. Good luck with that. But if you define the problem narrowly and set the targets in the right way, an incentive prize can be incredibly powerful, which is why you’ve seen the idea spread beyond the X Prize Foundation to private companies and even the government. These things can unleash tremendous creative energies. And I don’t even think it’s because people are trying to get rich. They want to win the money, but more than that, they want to make a difference. A prize is a permission slip to dream big in an unembarrassed way.
Ryan Jones, senior editor