Archive for December, 2017

Why disruptive innovation is nothing new

December 25, 2017

During a quiet interlude at Christmas I found myself reflecting on the overlap between contemporary ideas about innovation, and the history of industrial and technological change over the centuries.  And I was prompted to dig out a wonderful quote that I remember from my childhood.  It’s from Railway Race to the North published in 1958, and about events of the 1880s and 1890s, and includes this fragment of an account by the flamboyant and ambitious entrepreneur Edward Watkin of a train journey from London to Scotland.

Watkin quote

Why would I argue that this insight into Victorian fast food is an example of what would now be called disruptive innovation?

First of all some of the rail companies and their managers felt that by the late nineteenth century technical progress was levelling off.  They had created a dense national network of lines and had rapidly made the canals obsolete.  The technology was there to transport passengers between cities at an average speed of maybe 40mph, and it wasn’t at all apparent that anybody would ever want to go faster.  There are parallels with, for example, Nokia in the early 2000s believing that mobile phone technology was not going to improve dramatically in the future.

The other is that once the rail operators accepted that their objective was to get people from the south of England to Scotland comfortably within a day, they realised that part of the service to be provided was to ensure that their passengers could eat, and that providing catering was important.  Which is why, over a century later, there are still plenty of catering outlets at transport hubs.  So next time you notice the Petit Pret at the top of the escalators at Kings Cross tube station, or the nice Vietnamese stall at Paddington, or any of the great independent outlets at stations around where I live, remember that these are examples of the disruptive innovation of 1888.

Happy Christmas