Lines of Innovation – Part II

by Scott Bowden

Lines of Innovation – Part II

In a previous article (Lines of Innovation – Part I) I wrote about the importance of lines in thinking about innovation.  In this sequel, I will focus on additional examples where lines provide insight into the challenge of driving innovation.  A common theme of this article is the importance of the abstract and the simple.  In other words, innovators tend to spend a great deal of time focusing on the literal (what surrounds us, what we see, feel, and hear in our daily lives).  Yet there is tremendous power in focusing on the abstract, or stepping away from concrete reality to make new, insightful observations about the world.

The scholar Robert Kaplan captures this well in his study of the American West, Earning the Rockies.  Kaplan writes that a “traveler and journalist constantly talks to people; what they tell him helps shape his experience and perceptions.”  He contrasts this to the work of an analyst, who “thinks about what is not being said but what is obvious.”  Kaplan sums this up with the succinct phrase: “[a]n analyst works inside the silences.”  Although the innovator must spend some of his or her time interacting with colleagues or customers to gather data to solve a problem, he or she should also remember to spend time working “inside the silences,” or thinking about what is not said and not seen.  This is a location from which truly innovative ideas can emerge.

The use of abstractions is a powerful tool in academic research.  In one of my past careers, International Relations Theory, scholars have spent (and continue to spend) decades debating reductionist theories that postulate that all relations among countries are defined by the state of anarchy in international politics and relative power capabilities among the states.  In other words, all state behavior in the international arena can be attributed to the fact that there is no central government on the planet that can use force to control or regulate how states interact with each other.  The only force to persuade states is power, so a country’s power relative to others defines its behavior relative to those other states.  Scholars in this field sometimes seek out the most parsimonious, or simple, theories to explain a phenomenon.  These theories can be powerful tools even though they clearly do not take into account all of the variables associated with a particular action.  The parsimonious theories can also give guidance to a scholar to head down a certain path of investigation, where deeper analysis can reveal new insights.  For the innovator, the power of abstraction can be used in a similar way as we shall see in many of the examples below that focus on the importance of lines in innovation.

Roman Decumanus Line

One of my favorite activities when traveling is to visit ancient Roman cities.  While the most obvious place to do this is in Rome, I found very interesting lines in Roman cities in areas as geographically distant as Volubilis in Morocco and Jerash in Jordan.  In both of these cities (and indeed in many other Roman cities including Barcelona, Damascus, Split, and Beirut), the town layout was in a consistent model known as the Decumanus maximus.  The Decumanus maximus was a main road with an East-West orientation.  If one closes one’s eyes and is transported from one Roman city to another, one would see very similar structures in terms of the main road running into and out of town.  Although there are many reasons why the Romans built their cities this way, one key reason is for defensive purposes.  The famed Roman Legions would be sent all over the empire to defend various locations.  By having a consistent design in terms of how the city is oriented, Roman Legionnaires from other cities would be able to defend cities in any location.  Strategies that worked to defend Jerash in Jordan could also be applied to Volubilis in Morocco.  Likewise, knowing that attackers were likely to approach from certain directions simplified the challenge of preparing defenses.

Innovation Lesson – As innovators we often think that the most creative or best solution is something that is entirely new or different.  After all, the very root of innovation is thinking differently about a problem.  Yet the Roman Decumanus line shows us that consistency can be innovative too.  Having the same setup for cities across the empire proved to be a defensive innovation for the Romans.  Consistency is not always, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, the hobgoblin of simple minds.  Rather, it can be the inspiration for better approaches to solving challenges.

The Four Corners

For any student, one of the earliest lessons in the geography of the United States is the arrangement of the 50 states.  At a young age, a budding geographer should be able to fill in the names of all 50 states on a blank map, and in thinking back to my younger days, I recall that it was always interesting to identify the four states that meet perfectly in a single point in the Western U.S.: Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado.  This place, known as Four Corners, seemed quite distant for many decades, but now that I live in one of the four states, I decided to visit the site for the first time.  The place where the four states meet is in a desolate, remote, dry, and windy area in the desert Southwest of the US.  The exact boundary line was marked in 1912 and refurbished in the 1990s, giving visitors the chance to stand in four states at the same time.  One visitor while I was there decided to putt a golf ball across several states.  In addition to Four Corners, there are other locations that receive tourist traffic because of the intersection of state borders, those these other locations consist of the alignment of three state borders in a single location.  People who seek out these sites refer to themselves as “tri-pointers,” and one particularly diligent tri-pointer catalogued 65 sites in the U.S. where at least three states come together at a single point. 

Innovation Lesson – At first glance, the concept of Four Corners may not strike one as particularly innovative.  The location is in the Navajo Nation and enterprising Navajo residents constructed a very nice building and observation area which improves the experience for anyone arriving at the site.  The Navajo owners of the site charge a fee to visit it, and it is likely that this is the only revenue-producing activity that could come from that specific piece of land (except perhaps for wind and solar energy, as the wind and sun were constant companions at the site).  The real innovation lesson here is the importance of the power of transforming something that is abstract into something that is real and tangible as a way of helping humans experience the phenomenon.  If the Four Corners monument merely consisted of a sign indicating that somewhere nearby this location the four states of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet up, then it is unlikely that people would do much more than take a quick picture then move on.  The structures built by the Navajo that precisely define this location and allow people to take an abstract concept – a state border on a map – and turn it into something tangible – brass and concrete markers on the ground – demonstrates how a simple, physical action can dramatically increase the value of an abstraction.

Tennis Court Lines

In sports, lines are key elements that define the boundaries of where games are played between competitors.  The game of tennis, in particular, has very distinct lines, in the form of rectangles on either side of a net, that define whether a ball played is considered “in” or “out.”  In professional tennis tournaments, one sees several line judges placed in various positions on the court to watch the lines and determine if a ball played by a competitor is in or out.  In the old days of wooden tennis rackets where the ball did not travel as quickly, the human judges were able to make mostly accurate calls about the location of a ball.  Periodically the chair umpire, who was perched in a high chair above the net and able to see across the entire court, would overrule the line calls.  As racket technology advanced over the years (graphite and other materials), and player technique and conditioning (strength training, etc.) improved, the balls started traveling faster and faster, making it harder and harder for the human judge to be able to spot a quick-moving ball on the court.  This was particularly true on serves, where a player would launch the ball at over 120 mph covering a short distance.  As player frustration mounted over perceived incorrect calls, professional tennis organizations rolled out a technology known as cyclops, which placed an electronic eye along the service line, just at the point where the line ended.  Cyclops would issue a loud beep anytime a ball on a serve breached the eye, which indicated that the ball was beyond the service line and thus out of bounds.

The loud beep was unarguable by the players, and what went from an argumentative process with human line calls on serves gradually became a definitive process with few complaints from the players.  This, however, still left side lines and other lines subject to human calls, so the arguing shifted to that part of the court.  Over years, as technology improved, the professional tennis tours developed computer-assisted line calls that monitoring all lines on the court with cameras that, when needed, would convert video of balls traveling near a line into a computer-generated image that could be shown to the entire stadium on a screen and clearly indicate where a ball landed.  Although the tool can only be used when players challenge what they perceive as an incorrect line call by a human judge, the process has proved bulletproof, with the video evidence provided to the entire stadium, leaving no doubt about what happened on a particular shot.

Innovation Lesson – The lesson here for the innovator has to do with the importance of visually presenting important information as part of the process of introducing a new technology.  In the case of cyclops (the old beeping system on serves), tennis fans had nothing more than a beep to go on in terms of their ability to process whether a serve was in or out.  The possibility existed that the system malfunctioned, so fans were not always confident in the results.  The new system used in professional tennis presents a computer-generated image of the ball and clearly shows whether the ball is in or out, and the entire stadium can see the evidence.  I do not watch that much tennis, but I have never seen fans react negatively to a call presented with video evidence, as opposed to the old cyclops system that sometimes resulted in jeers and whistles by displeased fans.  In both cases, advanced technology is presenting information to the fans, players, and umpire, but the newer, more visual technology has been much more successful.  For an innovator trying to gain acceptance of a new technology, one should try to incorporate additional senses into the experience of a new technology.  Visual and tactile solutions are likely to be the best accepted, though, of course, this could depend on the technology under consideration.  Nonetheless, the maxim that the more one can demonstrate of a new technology, the more likely people are to accept it.

Trading Assembly Lines for Lines of Future Customers

Lines played an important role in one of the most successful technology exhibits of all time – the GM Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  A visionary industrial designer from Michigan, Bel Geddes created an interactive, scale model that took Americans of the 1930s into a simulated overflight of the world of the 1960s.  For its exhibit, GM originally planned to build a mock-up of its automobile assembly line, just as it had done at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.  Indeed, this would likely have been a fine display, showcasing the latest in GM assembly-line technology.  The concept of the moving assembly line, with its innovative notion of moving the product to the workers instead of making the workers move to the product, was still a relatively new technology at that point, having been invented just a few decades earlier.  Attendees to the GM exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair would likely have enjoyed seeing how GM builds a car and might even have marveled at some of the technological advances of the process.  Yet GM would not have been able to escape from the fact that what they showed in 1939 was hardly different from what they had shown in 1933.

It was this line of argument that Bed Geddes pursued when he convinced GM Leadership that they could not “afford to create the impression that they’d had no new ideas in five years.”  Bel Geddes won a $2 million contract (equivalent to $33 million today) and went to work creating a vision of the future that tied GM into the future of America.  According to Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, Bel Geddes created something truly innovative and amazing for his client, “a simulated flight over the America of 1960” that was remarkable.  Bel Geddes “performed his magic with the biggest scale model ever built, a diorama of farm, forest, suburb, and city that covered nearly an acre and featured about half a million individually designed and crafted houses, a downtown bristling with skyscrapers ten feet tall, more than a million tiny trees representing eighteen species, and about fifty thousand streamlined cars and trucks, of which ten thousand moved on roads, bridges, and highways.”  The simulated overflight lasted for 15 minutes and people waited in line for hours to go through it.

Swift notes that “Bel Geddes and his people not only built the model but engineered the 1,568-foot conveyor, on which the rubber-wheeled chairs moved at 103 feet per minute and turned at orchestrated points to face highlighted features of the diorama, each chair doing so independently of the other 599.”  The ride had a sound system that could deliver “150 overlapping copies of the narration, so that the words you heard always corresponded with what you and your three nearest neighbors were seeing.”  In addition, Swift continues, “Bel Geddes and his staff devised myriad little tricks to boost the model’s realism; [including a]irplanes in flight [that] cast shadows, […w]aterfalls [that] were shrouded in spray, […c]louds of real water vapor [that] hung over the mountains.”  The model also contained “[t]heatrical lighting [that] brought on dusk, drew the eye to specific targets, [and] manipulated mood.”  So as to remind audiences of the sponsor of the exhibit, the motorway in the diorama had numerous cars speeding by in motion.

Innovation Lesson – The GM Futurama exhibit and the amazing work of Normal Bel Geddes reminds the modern innovator of the importance of stretching one’s boundaries to drive innovation.  GM clearly could have shown innovation in automotive manufacturing in its World’s Fair exhibit, and Bel Geddes would have been rewarded for putting together a display of this manufacturing prowess.  Some might even have deemed the exhibit “innovative.”  Yet it is unlikely that a depiction of the GM assembly line in 1939 would still be written about nearly 80 years later.  Bel Geddes applied his visionary instincts to take the GM product, the car, and show how it fit into the American of the future.  He used techniques from his background in theatrical production to make the experience even more powerful, and replaced assembly lines with lines of eager future GM customers, waiting patiently to get a taste of their future world.

The Equator Line in Ecuador

Any visit to Ecuador is incomplete without a trip to the Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world tourist site near the capital city of Quito.  In fact, the country’s name, “Ecuador,” is derived from its location on the equator.  The Mitad del Mundo site contains a number of structures, including a line showing precisely where the equator is located, allowing a person to have one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere at the same time.  The location was identified by a team of French and Spanish scientists in a Geodesic Survey in 1736 (more on that in a future article).  Ostensibly at 0 degrees, 0 minutes, and 0 seconds, the location of the monument is actually a few seconds off of the actual, GPS satellite-identified modern line, which is about 150 meters away from the site.  Interestingly, at the precise 0-0-0 location there is an ancient site called Inti Nan that was created by the Quichua people, who ruled this area in pre-Columbian times.  Although it was quite a feat in 1736 to identify the location of the actual line within 150 meters, the fact that the Quichua people recognized the significance of this place hundreds of years earlier, and actually found the exact spot without instruments, is quite astonishing. 

Innovation Lesson – The Quichua people did not leave written records that explained how they so precisely located their Inti Nan site.  At this point, one can only make assumptions, unless we believe that the Quichua possessed extraordinary intelligence or used some sort of magic to locate the spot.  Since this all happened before Columbus sailed across the ocean to the New World, it is not clear that the Quichua would even have a concept of the planet as a sphere with a precise midpoint.  An educated guess could be that the Quichua people made use of what today we would call “relentless focus” to find the precise spot where the sun reached its maximum on the equinox.  The ability to devote a tremendous amount of time and patience to observing natural phenomena may have been the key to this insight, but that alone might not be enough to permit them to achieve their goal.  Perhaps it was this intense focus guided by some sort of hypothesis as to the puzzle they were trying to solve that led them to the breakthrough.  For the modern innovator, in our world of myriad distractions, rapid-fire responses to texts and emails and tweets, perhaps the lesson from the Quichua could be the value of slowing down and focusing intensively on solving a problem.

The 100th Meridian and Climate

Driving across the continent of the United States makes for a long but rewarding journey.  Seeing the countryside change from the forested East to the barren and mountainous West is a memorable experience.  There is an interesting theory about this land area that is tied to an important line – the 100th meridian.  The line, which runs from north to south, crosses Texas, Oklahoma, Kansa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.  A scholar of the Great Plains, Walter Prescott Webb, identified this line as the dividing line between dry and wet parts of the continent.  Kaplan, writing about this line, observes:

To the west of this invisible line, in the midst of a flat and monotonous landscape, all the way to the Pacific slope, there is only an average of twenty inches of annual rainfall.  The arid West begins at this demarcation.  Here is where the tall grass gives way to the short grass of poorer soils.  East of this line, all the way to the Atlantic, the landscape is heavily timbered; west of this line the land is mainly treeless, with some obvious exceptions like the Pacific Northwest.

When one drives across the invisible line, the change is not immediately apparent, but over time one certainly senses a change in climate and topography as one’s journey progresses across the flat landscape.  By the time one realizes that he or she has entered a completely different environment from before, the 100th meridian is long passed and the Rockies loom ahead.  The sensation is somewhat like the gradual climb from sea level to the mile-high city of Denver on the plains.  Other than some rolling hills along the way, one never feels as though one is driving uphill going from East to West.

Another fascinating extrapolation from the 100th meridian proffered by Webb relates to American history and the spread of slavery.  According to Webb, this invisible line represented the end of the line for slavery because its economic model of large plantations and labor-intensive farming could not survive in the arid West, which rendered its expansion impossible.  The economic model of the northern states, which relied on small farms and growing industrialization, was better suited to the climate west of the 100th meridian.

There are two more observations that can be ascertained from the invisible characteristics of the American West.  Kaplan writes that the large size of the continental United States was part of the reason that it became a superpower.  Kaplan states that “the immensity of the continent that required the development of more powerful and efficient locomotives than in other parts of the world, something which, in turn, enabled the development of long-distance engines for our warships, so that the strength of our navy is directly related to the size of the dry-land continent and the rail lines spanning it.”  Another observation from Kaplan relates to the makeup of the Federal Government as it relates to the geography of the US:

The bureaucratic power of the federal government as we know it today has its origins in such bodies as the Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Bureau of Standards, the Bureau of Mines, and the Reclamation Service – all connected in one way or another to the surveying of the thinly soiled West.  It might even be argued that had the United States been settled from west to east, rather than from east to west as it was, a more centralizing autocracy would have taken hold.  Liberty in America emerged in part because the water-rich thirteen colonies had little need of regulation.  And that natural abundance extended deep into the prairie.  Whereas Iowa was almost 100 percent arable.  Utah, for example, had only about 3 percent arable land.  Thus pioneers could not simply overrun Utah and prosper.  Strict guidelines from a centralizing state authority were required for them to thrive.

Innovation Lesson – In each of these examples, the 100th meridian, the steam engine, and the Federal Government, Kaplan demonstrates how a process of simplification and abstraction can derive real insights into larger, more complex systems.  This is exactly how an innovator can create new insights.

Lazy Bed Farming Lines

From 1845 to 1847, over one million Irish citizens lost their lives as a result of a potato blight fungus that spread like wildfire across the island.  One of the mysteries of the blight was why it spread so quickly and why it struck at that particular epoch.  Charles Mann in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, observes that “[t]oday Ireland has the melancholy distinction of being the only nation in Europe, and perhaps the world, to have fewer people within the same boundaries than it did more than 150 years ago.”  Research performed by Michael Myers from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that an innovation launched in the 1700s inadvertently resulted in conditions that led to the rapid spread of the blight.

Mann writes that “Irish farmers for centuries had grown crops by cutting out blocks of sod, flipping them upside down, and piling them into long, broad ridges separated by deep furrows – “lazy-bed” farming, as the system was known.”  The name came from an English term for the potato – the lazy root.  The ridges were about four feet wide and sat about one foot above the surrounding land and looked quite similar to an ancient Incan farming method called wacho in the Andes.  Mann notes that the lazy beds possessed several advantages over traditional farming:

They were built in boggy soils; the ridges warmed up more quickly in the morning and retained heat longer in the evening than the surrounding flatlands, and advantage in cold places like the Andes and Ireland.  Constructed from several layers of sod, the ridges represented concentrations of good soil; farmers could plant them densely, which naturally stifled weeds.  Because the ridges were not plowed, they had intact root systems that resisted erosion; the roots also ensured that grass returned quickly after harvest, restoring nutrients. 

These farming methods ran headlong into the farming innovation movement of the 1700s, led by activists such as Andrew Wight and Jethro Tull, both of whom saw the lazy bed furrows as inferior to modern farming methods.  Wight and Tull advocated deep plowing to release soil nutrients, planting on every possible inch of farmland, copious amounts of fertilizer, constant weeding, and efficient harvesting.  The new farm tools of this era could not operate in the furrows (they required flat land), so the Irish began removing their traditional rows and replacing them with the new techniques.  By 1834, hardly any lazy bed furrows remained.

In a recent empirical study, Myers set up test potato fields to compare lazy furrows with modern rows.  Myers “found that the lazy beds were half as susceptible to potato blight as modern farming fields, not to mention the old furrows needed less fertilizer and had fewer weeds.”  The keys to this reduced susceptibility were temperature and moisture.  Myer observed that “[t]he furrows created a sharp temperature differential between the top of the furrow and the surrounding soil, and also drained water away more effectively which carried away blight spores before they could germinate.”  By abandoning the lazy furrows and replacing them with “modern” agricultural techniques, Irish farmers inadvertently created the conditions that allowed the potato blight of 1845-1847 to kill over a million Irish citizens.

Innovation Lesson – One of the challenges we face as innovators is knowing how to recognize value in the old ways of doing things.  Because we are so focused on finding new approaches to solving problems, we do not spend much time thinking about the ways in which an older system is working well.  There is value in spending time understanding in more detail how an old system or process works before tossing it aside to implement a new solution.  The lesson of the lazy bed furrow lines can serve as a reminder to the innovator to slow down and spend a little more time understanding that innovation can reside as much in the old ways of doing things as in the new.

A Horizontal Border Line

If one could devise a calculation to show the intensity of focus on a piece of land in terms of the ratio of the number of people interested in that land to the actual size of the land, the Old City of Jerusalem would certainly be at the top of the list.  Jerusalem is the holiest place for Judaism, Christianity, and is one of the top 3 holiest sites for Islam.  The Old City is only about one square kilometer in size, but in that small space reside an amazing collection of religious sites, from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (site of Jesus’ resurrection) to the Western Wall (the only remaining part of the Second Temple) to the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (the site where Mohammed ascended into Heaven). 

As one can imagine, control over this land is hotly contested and has been the location of battles among these religious groups for thousands of years.  Currently controlled by Israel, Jerusalem is surrounded by lines in terms of borders.  One can see this plainly in terms of the security wall between Israeli territory and the Palestinian-controlled West Bank.  The lines of these borders are vertical, with the security fence separating one area from another.  In fact, as long as there have been states, international borders have served as vertical dividing lines between areas.  Yet as Edward Hollis notes in The Secret Lives of Buildings, one innovator tried to think of borders in a new way.  In the year 2000, Bill Clinton (U.S. President), Yasser Arafat (Palestinian Authority President), and Ehud Barak (Prime Minister of Israel) met at Camp David for a peace conference, trying to resolve the seeming unsolvable issue of Middle East peace.  Hollis notes that the three participants “weren’t making much progress, and perhaps President Clinton wanted his guests to reflect on their intransigence.”

Clinton observed that the Temple Mount was built on top of ground that Israeli archaeologists wanted to excavate to search for remnants of the First and Second Temples.  Cleverly he stated that “in this area the border between Israel and the future Palestine should not be a vertical plane, but a horizontal one.”  In other words, the top of the Temple Mount could belong to the Palestinian Authority, while the ground beneath it could belong to Israel.  Hollis concludes that “[i]t was an absurd proposal, but in the context of Israel and Palestine nothing could have seemed more natural.”  None of the parties accepted the proposal, and the conflict continued.

Innovation Lesson – Had the story of the horizontal border ended with the parties agreeing to terms and signing a Middle East peace deal, then perhaps this could have been the greatest application of innovation in world history.  Yet just because this did not result in peace, it does not hold that the idea was not innovative.  President Clinton’s example of the horizontal border line provides two specific lessons for the innovator.  First, one of the quickest ways to arrive at innovation is to perform a complete inversion of whatever area one is investigating by asking fundamental questions about the topic.  Clinton asked why borders always had to be vertical, especially when the point of contention was about the horizontal plane.  Simple questions can sometimes lead to great insights.  A second lesson for the innovator stems from Clinton’s use of an absurd example to drive home a larger point.  By talking about a horizontal border, Clinton was highlighting the fact that the two sides could never reach agreement on a peace deal as long as they were stuck in old ways of looking at things, such as traditional vertical borders.  Innovators need to find ways to help their colleagues or customers step outside of their old ways of doing business, and sometimes it is the job of the innovator to shine a light on absurdities to show how the old ways of thinking will not lead to any breakthroughs.

The Greenwich Meridian and Longitude Lines

One of the most famous North-South lines in the world is the Greenwich Meridian, just outside of London.  This represents 0 degrees longitude and also is the basis for measurement of global time (Greenwich Mean Time [GMT]).  Just next to the Greenwich Observatory is a Maritime Museum where I went in search of one of the most important innovations in maritime navigation, the Harrison Clock.  In the early 1700s, one of the greatest challenges to maritime navigation was determining longitude, or a ship’s position East or West relative to its origin or destination.  Latitude (north/south position) was less of a challenge because a navigator could examine the sun’s position at noon (local time) and the North star to determine how far above or below the equator one was sailing.

Longitude, on the other hand, required the ability for a navigator to compare local time to a fixed time elsewhere, and by calculating the difference between those two readings, one could determine how far East or West one had traveled.  Every hour of difference between local time and the fixed time at the origin equaled 15 degrees of longitude.  Accomplishing this feat required the creation of a clock that could maintain very precise time while handling the swaying and rolling of a ship at sea (not to mention variations in temperature and corrosive salt air), which confounded the mechanical clocks of the era.  The winning design was created by the Englishman John Harrison, who developed a series of chronometers (known as the H-1, H-2, H-3, and H-4).

Innovation Lesson – Although Harrison’s innovation in spring and wheel design is meritorious, a more interesting innovation lesson lies in how the overall Longitude problem was solved.  The solution indeed required mechanical expertise on the part of Harrison, but the general concept of establishing a base point and measuring against it was more profound.  In other words, to determine where a ship was located at sea, a navigator would not solely focus on intensive calculations of where the ship was situated at the immediate moment.  Rather, the navigator would combine observations from the current location with a fixed piece of information from his or her origin (via the chronometer).  The combination of these two elements would provide more accurate longitude information.  An innovator should thus remember not to get too obsessed with detailed observations of the present state of a project or initiative but should also take into account how far one has evolved from the starting point of the effort.  This can help the innovator determine if her or she is heading in the correct direction.

The De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) on the Korean Peninsula

Situated at the 38th parallel of latitude, the DMZ separates North and South Korea and is one of the most heavily militarized stretches of land on Earth.  The location is based on roughly where the competing forces were positioned when a truce was negotiated in 1953 by the United Nations.  The DMZ is about 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and contains a series of defenses on both sides of the line, including millions of land mines as well as barbed wire fencing, observation posts, and explosive-charged tank traps.  Visiting the DMZ is an intense experience, especially when one stands in the conference room that straddles the actual border and one can officially step into North Korea from the South, all the while protected by South Korean and US soldiers. 

Another interesting border line between countries is that between India and China.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Stacey and Alastair Gale note that in an era of increasing tension between India and China as the latter increases its influence over the East Asia and South Asia, India faces a conundrum with its borders.  Stacey and Gale write that “India has long believed its vast land and sea borders were best left undeveloped to avoid providing useful infrastructure for potential invaders.”  However, they continue, “with China building highways along India’s Himalayan border and constructing ports in neighboring countries, India is facing the reality that it needs to spend heavily to keep up.”  While China is spending billions of dollars on new ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, India has not yet developed key sites in the Indian Ocean, such as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  Both border management strategies have advantages and disadvantages, and their best use depends on the scenarios faced by the different countries.

Innovation Lesson – For the innovator, a border between countries is similar to a place where one’s company meets another in the marketplace.  For instance, a company could develop a product that goes up directly against a competitor’s product.  In the direct competition scenario, a company could choose to go in strong, like the Korean border, or enter weakly, as would be the case with the Indian approach of leaving areas undeveloped.  In the Indian approach, a company might confront a competitor but not put all of its intellectual capital into the product in the marketplace, recognizing that there is a risk that the competitor could co-opt that product and leave the original company in a poor competitive position.  Conversely, in the Korean approach, a company could enter with as strong a product as possible and seek to confront the competitor on every front.  An innovator can use these different thought processes to determine which approach would be the best use of his or her time and intellectual capital.


Photos courtesy of the author

Robert D. Kaplan, Earning the Rockies (New York: Random House, 2017)


Pat Eaton-Robb, “Travelers look for spots where 3, more states touch,” The Park Record (July 29, 2017), p. B8.

Earl Swift, The Big Roads (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (New York: Vintage Books, 2012)

Edward Hollis, The Secret Lives of Buildings (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009)

Larrie D. Ferreiro, Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped Our World (New York: Basic Books, 2011)

Daniel Stacey and Alastair Gale, “China Races Ahead in Indian Ocean While India and Japan Take Baby Steps,” The Wall Street Journal (July 24, 2017)

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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