Q&A with Peter Kunz, Boeing HorizonX chief technologist, on creating a culture of problem-solving

Peter Kunz

Peter Kunz, Boeing HorizonX chief technologist.

By thinking differently about problems and the possible solutions, Boeing’s broad experience and expertise is positioned to enable rapid innovation and disruption in aerospace.

Q. How do you define innovation?

A. We define innovation as delivering what really matters for customers. It is more than coming up with ideas; it is about finding new solutions to existing and future problems.

Try telling someone to ‘go be innovative,’ and see what happens. We don’t want to sacrifice utility and value for the customer for a vague notion of technical awesomeness as the metric of innovation.

A solution can often seem simple, if only at the surface. There’s an elegance that sometimes belies the technical complexity—but what matters is creating significant, positive change.

Q. So how do you spur innovation?

A. As much as we often lean on technology, I see innovation as a byproduct of culture. Innovation comes from how we think about a problem, dissect it, and attack it in ways we have not thought of before.

We innovate most successfully when every individual believes they have a role in creatively solving high-value problems. That encourages the expression of ideas and a diversity of thought that helps us achieve our end goal as a team.

When we bring a team together, all ideas are welcome, even if you’re not the expert. We’re seeking solutions, and technical expertise is only a piece of that.

Q. That’s easy to say. How can you create that culture?

A. A simpler way to say it is that we should strive for a learning culture—one that maximizes opportunity to gain knowledge about the work we do and the solutions we’re trying to deliver. That’s part of what knowledge sharing really means. What are we working on? What are we trying to achieve? What are the challenges we need to overcome? The more we experience and the more ideas we have, the stronger they become.

This also means falling down more. I’m a fan of making small bets and taking small risks in the journey to finding the big win.

This does not mean prioritizing learning over risk— we don’t celebrate recklessness—but it does mean proactively managing risk, more from a consequence side than a likelihood side, to make it safe to learn more, and learn faster.

Q. What is HorizonX’s role within Boeing?

A. As a driver of Boeing’s growth and innovation, Boeing HorizonX is investing in and partnering with other businesses—from startups to corporations— to accelerate our capacity toward delivering innovative solutions. In doing so, we’re also helping to accelerate that culture of innovation leaps forward compounded by our existing internal innovation efforts, especially with respect to emerging technologies and technology enablers like autonomy, AI, electric/hybrid-electric propulsion, advanced materials and production technologies.

These connections also build on our diversity of thought: more diversity from our investments and collaboration with startup ecosystems around the world. That then connects across Boeing when we have the opportunity to create within Boeing through these partnerships and investments.

Q. Can you give me a concrete example of an innovative application of these technologies that will change how we live and work?

A. We fast-tracked the development of a new electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) cargo unmanned air vehicle (CAV) prototype. I say “we” because it was a real collaboration of Boeing HorizonX and our teammates in Boeing Research & Technology, Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Boeing Defense, Space & Security—designing and building the CAV prototype in less than three months.

We blended electric propulsion with Boeing custom-designed batteries, vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, and unmanned systems technologies in a multi-copter envisioned to carry up to 500 pounds over land and sea.

The CAV prototype successfully completed initial flight tests inside Boeing’s Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory in Missouri.

We are using it as a test bed to drive the future of autonomous air travel and transport. It will open up new possibilities for the delivery of time-sensitive and high-value goods, autonomously, and in remote or dangerous environments, and enable many other cargo and logistics applications.

What was amazing to me as a technologist was seeing it go from a concept on paper to prototype so rapidly. Within Boeing, we’ve got the resources and technical acumen to integrate these new technologies into our core competencies and lead the way in emerging markets.

Q. What else is on the horizon?

A. Our vision is to bring flight closer to home—more connected transport and travel—and to make flight simpler. I feel like we’re at this moment of convergence, from artificial intelligence to advanced materials and manufacturing to alternative energy. The opportunities and technologies are meeting at the same time, and we are poised to take advantage and lead.

By Will Wilson, Boeing Writer | Photography by Darin Hartlieb