Today I have been thinking about innovation. More specifically about how and why some organizations seem to have mastered the art of innovating while others struggle to adopt a culture that embraces change and innovation. The level of industrialization and quality of the processes that run and support an organization, and that make it achieve excellence in their day to day operations and products, whatever their nature, are sometimes the worst enemy of creativity and innovation.
Yet some companies have mastered both sides of the coin and are able to execute, operate and manufacture with atomic precision while creating a corporate culture that promotes and embraces thinking out of the box, pursuing new ideas and pushing the boundaries to create better products and, ultimately, progress.
I have to admit I admire those organizations. And every time I go through this thought process, I end up thinking of my favorite example of innovation at a great scale: Concorde. It is not the first time I write about this beautiful machine and what it meant to commercial aviation, yet I still find amazing to learn the amount and complexity of the challenges faced by the men and women that strongly believed that they could deliver something that changed the way air travel was understood, and they did. They proved that determination and the right culture for innovation can go very far, so far, that they created a gap in progress.
Enumerating every single innovation that Concorde brought would be material for a large number of books, but there are still a few items worth mentioning. The most curious one is how the effect of drag at high speed generated so much heat, that the nose tip would reach temperatures well beyond +100 degrees celsius, even though the air at cruising levels would typically be below -60. This meant that Concorde would be longer (up to one feet) in the air than on the ground. Due to its higher takeoff and landing speeds, the brakes where a crucial component, being the first commercial aircraft to be equipped with carbon brakes. This, together with the early introduction of fly by wire as mentioned in the previous post, mark just an example of the challenges that had to be overcome with the help of creativity, innovation and determination. All of this, using 1950-60s technology.
More than being just a beautiful machine and possibly the most sleek and elegant commercial aircraft ever built, it is a living -at least in our memories- example of the culture of innovation that can change the world.
Often progress and technological evolution is seen as a continuous and relentless process. Some industries progress faster than others, and every now and then, there are huge steps that create a huge gap with the precedent technology. But extremely rarely, evolution goes backwards and progress is inverted, creating an anomaly in progress, a situation in which something that was technically possible is not possible anymore.
This is the case of Commercial Supersonic Travel and the incredible machine that made it possible for 27 years. Concorde.
The more I look into the history of how this beautiful craft was designed and built, the more admiration I develop for the huge, quantum leap that designers and engineers managed to make using 1950’s and early 1960’s technology. Interestingly, some of the techniques and technologies developed for Concorde are still being introduced gradually into modern airliners, like fly by wire. Now widely adopted (Airbus first introduced it after Concorde in 1988 on the A320 family, whilst Boeing waited until the 777 was introduced in 1994), it was an example of how Concorde was way ahead of its time.
A controversial machine, though, environmentally unfriendly for the noise its four Rolls Royce Olympus engines generated, and its generous fuel burning, yet an incredible breakthrough in progress, so big, it constituted one of the very few anomalies in progress. Nearly a decade after it was withdrawn from commercial service, there is no sign that Commercial Supersonic Travel will be possible again in the near future.