Elon Musk and Steven Chu at the 2013 ARPA-E Summit.

Elon Musk and Steven Chu at the 2013 ARPA-E Summit. Photo: Michael Belfiore.

I’m at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit just outside Washington, DC.

Elon Musk–head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, two companies attempting to upend their respective industries–and Stephen Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, spoke to a crowded ballroom about how radical innovation happens. The conversation was moderated by Steve Clemons of The Atlantic.

Musk touched on all three of his areas of focus as an entrepreneur: the Internet, sustainable energy, and space exploration.

The Internet, he said, “has given humanity a nervous system. It’s like every cell in the body knows what the rest of the cells are doing.”

Sustainable energy, he said, was the biggest problem facing humanity. “If we don’t solve that problem this century, independent of any environmental concerns, we will face economic collapse. This is obvious.”

That problem is, of course, a major focus of Chu’s. He established the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, as the Department of Energy’s answer to DARPA, the Pentagon’s mad science wing that is charged with both keeping and preventing technological surprise for America’s adversaries.

ARPA-E, similarly, seeks to hone America’s edge in sustainable energy production and storage, enabled by solar power, exotic batteries, biofuels, and more. How to do that, and by extension, how to pursue disruptive innovation in general was a major thrust of Musk and Chu’s conversation.

Musk compared working to create radical innovation within the context of government, as in ARPA-E, to doing so within a large corporation, in fact the largest. Said Musk:

“Generally, large corporations have a harder time with radical innovation than smaller companies. There are some exceptions to that rule, for instance Apple, but generally, the larger a company is, the harder it is to execute innovation.”

ARPA-E is following the DARPA model in breaking that paradigm, with a small group of program managers outsourcing the work of creating disruptive innovation to other, typically, small groups.

The working style of ARPA-E–which Chu said has now been adopted throughout the Department of Energy–is one of “constructive confrontation,” said Chu. When you work this way, said Chu:

“You’re not going to politely wait your turn. You’re going to hold discussions and combine intellect with the group.”

Musk, too, stressed the importance of contrarian feedback. “You should seek negative feedback,” he said of those seeking to create big breakthroughs. “You need to understand where you’re wrong.”

That doesn’t mean that you follow the advice of everyone who tells you you’re wrong. As Musk pointed out, edge you need to create radical innovation comes from separating what’s truly possible from what’s perceived by most people as impossible just because it hasn’t been done before.