"Disruptive innovation" has always trumped "incremental innovation" - it's always a matter of when, not if.”
In the mid-1990s, the designers of the Shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train) had a problem.
They wanted to make their trains faster but in doing this they were making them noisier. Traversing a built-up, urban environment, they had to travel through many tunnels. And on emerging from them at high-speed the force was so strong that it could create sonic booms – a major disturbance for the neighbourhoods they travelled through. As a result the shape of the train had to be redesigned to prevent the pressure wave that caused the noise. But finding a solution to this without compromising on speed proved to be a challenge.
And this is where the innovation came in.
But before we find out what those Japanese engineers did to solve the problem we need to look at that word. Innovation.
In digital, in print, in presentations, in meetings, on the airwaves – there’s a lot of it about.
Through casual overuse it has lost much of its power. At best, it’s a coverall term for something that really should be described better. At worst it can be a lazy veneer for something entirely ordinary.
But perhaps I am being cynical?
Innovative thinking solved the problem in Japan. The engineers used the natural world to inspire a solution. One of their number was a bird watcher, and he thought of the kingfisher, a bird that dives at high speed from air into water with barely a splash. It was the shape of the bird’s bill that allowed the bird to cut so cleanly into the water. And the Shinkansen nose was designed based on this streamlined shape of the Kingfishers beak. The new Shinkansen, the 500-series, went into commercial service on March 22, 1997, and wasn’t just running at speeds up to 300km/h but meeting the most stringent noise standards.
The design of the Shinkansen is a rail legend. However, I’d like to learn more about innovative thinking in our industry today and what it really means, in particular when it comes to expanding capacity, and improving passenger experience. I set out to speak to experts from organisations that I know are genuinely doing innovative work.
So, first up is River Tamoor Baig, Founder of Hack Partners which has grown @TheHackTrain hackathon from a small UK focussed event through to being an international agenda setting gathering of some of the brightest and most creative minds in rail.
“I guess there's two types of innovation; one being doing something that you've never done; and the other being doing something that nobody has done before," said River. "Both are incredibly important, but, in order for our industry to grow for the next 20 years and beyond, we have to make sure we're doing more of the latter than the former. If you look at any industry, on a long enough timeline, "disruptive innovation" has always trumped "incremental innovation" - it's always a matter of when, not if,”
If you’ve used your mobile phone whilst on the subway in Toronto or Hong Kong, BAI Communications companies have helped to get you connected. They build and operate cellular and Wi-Fi networks across sectors challenged with connectivity, and delivering this underground definitely offers questions that need innovative answers.
For Billy D'Arcy, Chief Executive Officer of BAI Communications UK, he links innovation right back to the challenge of growing rail capacity in the UK; “The UK has a golden opportunity to transform its rail infrastructure. At the very heart of this opportunity is the delivery of innovative, high-quality communications networks, which will not only create richer and safer commuter experiences for passengers but will unlock new revenue streams for transport authorities.”
“There is also is a significant opportunity for transport authorities. Digital connectivity provides the opportunity to improve overall operations, adding new services and providing authorities, and service providers, with a richer seam of data that can inform better investment decisions. The technology required to capitalise on this opportunity already exists. All that’s needed is the right infrastructure partner to make it happen – and an open mind to embracing innovation” concludes Billy.
“I don’t believe transformation can be achieved without innovation. The UK has a golden opportunity to transform its rail infrastructure. At the very heart of this opportunity is the delivery of innovative, high-quality communications networks, which will not only create richer and safer commuter experiences for passengers but will unlock new revenue streams for transport authorities.”
Billy D'Arcy, Chief Executive Officer of BAI Communications UK
Real connectivity, once in place can be a facilitator of all manner of innovation, from real time data monitoring to smart cards and CCTV.
One of my favourite innovative solutions in recent years has been the roll-out of Countdown Clocks on the New York subway, a technology that most other metros take for granted. The NYC metro’s ‘fixed block’ signalling system, which was installed in the 1930s, made accurate real time passenger information an insurmountable challenge for the majority of the transit system’s subway lines.”
Improving the New York subway was a big aspect of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)’s then-Chairman and CEO, Thomas F. Prendergast. “Governor Cuomo challenged the MTA to develop an aggressive approach to putting Countdown Clocks on the lettered lines," Prendergast said in 2016.
Up stepped Transit Wireless, a majority owned BAI Communications company, who solved the problem of delivering countdown clocks to the rest of the subway system. Nathan Cornish, Product Development Director at BAI Communications (@BAIComms), told us how; “The new clocks rely on technology that is straightforward, cost effective to deploy, and does not require large infrastructure. The system uses the existing Transit Wireless network in the stations and the MTA’s cloud computing, and involves Bluetooth receivers placed in every station Transit Wireless worked in. These receivers communicate with devices that have been installed in the train set running on the line. As the train enters and leaves a station the system uses its arrival and departure time to estimate the time at which the train will reach the next stop in the line, displaying the arrival times on the LCD display screens installed at each station.”
“These actions are the latest steps toward rebuilding and transforming the MTA into a unified, state-of-the-art transportation network that will meet the needs of current and future generations of New Yorkers,” said Governor Cuomo at the launch of the event. “With this new and updated technology, we’ll help ensure riders have the information they need to get where they need to go.”
The views of Governor Cuomo on the importance of innovation when it comes to public transport are shared by another leader, across the Atlantic, Mayor of London, @SadiqKhan, who is backing the roll out of 4G mobile coverage on the Tube from 2019. He stated in January 2018: “I’ve been clear in my ambition for London to become the world’s leading smart city… We want London to be the global home of the data economy, to seize the benefits of new artificial intelligence, and inspire a new generation of inventors and developers to make our city even better.”
So whether you are riding on a Shinkansen between Osaka and Fukuoka, using Countdown Clocks to judge if you have time to grab that coffee before catching the train downtown in New York or perhaps soon watching Game of Thrones whilst commuting into central London, you have innovation to thank. Real innovation, not the flimsy, vague stuff, but genuine, hardworking and project solving innovation.