Andy Walshe, director of high performance for Red Bull, on how using technology to ‘hack’ talent and creativity can help solve the world’s problems

3wIt was October 2012 and YouTube viewers were transfixed to their screens as Austrian Felix Baumgartner shot up to 128,100 feet in a stratospheric balloon and freefall-jumped toward Earth before parachuting to the ground. The Red Bull Stratos mission had 52 million YouTube viewers from all over the world tune in to watch Baumgartner become the first person to break the sound barrier without the aid of a vehicle.

Andy Walshe, who in 2007 became director of high performance for Red Bull after developing a Winter Olympics training program for American athletes, oversaw Baumgartner’s preparations for the Stratos mission and continues to supervise a team of experts who develop new models for pushing humans seemingly beyond their limits.

The company’s human performance program, which involves a team of engineers, trainers, nutritionists and sport-specific experts, has also worked with skiers Lindsey Vonn and Nick Goepper, snowboarder Louie Vito and golfer Rickie Fowler.

Walshe, a native of Australia who works out of Red Bull’s Santa Monica headquarters, believes everyone has the potential to achieve incredible feats — and not just in athletics. He also works with artists and musicians who collaborate with the brand.

Walshe will be in Aspen next month to train skiers and snowboarders for future competitions. He’s also gearing up for Red Bull’s Project Endurance, a weeklong series of intensive training sessions in May that tests both athletes’ limits and scientists’ ability to measure performance.

On Tuesday, Walshe is speaking about techniques for advancing the development of human potential as part of an ongoing lecture series at the UCLA Dept. of Architecture and Urban Design’s IDEAS facility in Playa Vista.

— Ameera Butt

Can you explain your role as high performance director at Red Bull?

The job is supporting and developing the talent within the organization, typically our athletes or our opinion leaders in the arts and music space … essentially help them either become better at what they’re doing or stay on top of the game. It’s typically cognizant around some aspirational dream they have, like, ‘Hey, I want to break a world record; I want to maybe jump from space.’ [Next month] we’re taking the human performance construct and wiring it into a project for social entrepreneurs in Africa. It really is about optimizing the potential of an individual towards whatever goal or targets they may have.

How do you figure out who’s in the program?

In the culture program — which is arts, music, photography — they’re not sponsored athletes, they’re more opinion leaders or people we have relationships with. It’s pretty much based on need and desire and passion.

We have our human performance facility in Santa Monica, but our athletes can be from anywhere in the world. They do come in and spend some time locally and work on things. The big project we are working on here is called ‘hacking creativity.’

What’s ‘hacking creativity?’

When we are trying to hack talent we are trying to look at the human performance construct. It’s a very complex problem, and we realized we needed a system. If you think about understanding what you eat, how many pushups you do, what you’re thinking about —bringing all of that data together is extraordinarily complex. We realized we needed a problem-solving engine for them.

Then, with all the work that was going on in the culture space creativity-wise, we thought we could do something really powerful to understand more about creativity and actually train for it. The best athletes in the world are extraordinarily creative — they’re trying to invent new tricks, do new things so it was a win-win-win. We paired our top women athletes with Cirque du Soleil, that creative environment with that physical aspect to it. It went really, really well.

We decided we actually had to try to build an engine to solve [creativity]. We basically constructed a virtual system, which is still ongoing, whereby X [number of] subject matter experts on creativity go on top of a lot of the research and data, and potentially opinions from the general public — from hundreds, as many people as would like to participate. If we allow that, what we call artificial intelligence, it’s doing all of that aggregation. We have expert intelligence, those are the interviews with subject matter experts, and then collective intelligence, which means the thousands of people who have opinions about this, and we can get that in the system. The system flattens those three layers of intelligence into insight and potentially into understanding and learning. We are going to try to be live by August or September this year. The first step is a number of opinionators sharing their ideas of creativity. The future state [is] everyone can participate in the conversation.

What is your philosophy when it comes to having athletes perform these death-defying acts?

My personal philosophy is people have extraordinary potential, and far beyond what anyone even imagines. It’s not 1% better, it’s 100% better in whatever you do — even if you’re the best in the world. That sets us up for the next five, 10, 20 years, where we get so much better at making people better in ways we haven’t done in hundreds of thousands of years.

The broader vision is we can understand talent and how the best in the world perform in these kinds of very deliberate verticals, like athletics, music, arts or culture or business. If we can understand that, our vision is we can actually transcribe it and bring it down and make it work for everybody. These skills are highly transferrable, and ultimately we can turn that information, with the same amount of energy and intensity, into making people who are trying to solve the world’s biggest challenges — environment, climate, disease, it may even be political. Maybe we can help the kid who can cure cancer or help the young girl who can help solve global warming.

It’s hacking talent. If we can understand [talent] really well, we can make the best better. People who are the best make money at being the best, but at the same time we should democratize talent by making sure those same skill sets aren’t restricted to the people at the top of the pyramid.

Walshe speaks at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, following a 6:45 p.m. reception, at IDEAS, located within the Hercules Campus at 5865 S. Campus Center Drive, Playa Vista. Ideas lectures are free and open to the public, but seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis. For information, call (310) 267-4704.