Commentary: Revolutionary transportation innovations moved humankind forward

NOTE: This article is a summary of a recent five-part series reviewing books about key innovations in transportation. The commentaries extracted lessons that could lead to better innovation in sea freight. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs. Google. These are a place, name and company that one associates with innovation today. It is indisputable that they have had a major impact on the lives we live and our world. But tech innovation is not alone or even atop the list of significant innovations that impact our daily lives. It is easy to argue that the five transportation innovations reviewed in my recent FreightWaves series have more impact on our daily lives than any recent tech innovation.

The commentaries used books about transport-related inventions (chronometer and airplane), achievements (Panama Canal and transcontinental railroad) and new industries (container shipping) to capture the excitement and challenge of solving previously unsolvable problems. Each story was filled with larger-than-life characters attacking physical and intellectual obstacles until they finally yielded. Unexpected breakthroughs and unparalleled persistence eventually led to successes that continue to benefit us today.

Think about modern life. The container ship, plane and train transport virtually everything in our homes and offices. Without their existence, life would revert to one that none would recognize or wish to endure. Each of these innovations moved humankind forward in remarkable ways.

At first glance, every story seems unrelated to each other and without much value to today’s R&D practitioners. But the series made clear there is much to learn from successes of the past. In each book, the protagonists had to evaluate their unique situation and devise a plan of action. Sometimes it took multiple attempts. It is no different today. Every corporate and project leader is responsible for assessing a situation and selecting an optimal course of action. There is much uncertainty and time is of the essence. The commentaries demonstrate that mining the past in search of process and project wisdom can deliver useful lessons.

Use the articles as a reference when you are stuck on a project. If you find a particular commentary to be useful, you may even want to read the entire book!

What ‘The Box’ teaches us about revolutionary change — Marc Levinson’s “The Box” is a history of the container shipping industry from the first containerized shipment in 1956 through 2005. Lessons for sea freight are the benefit of outsiders, boldness drives change and standards are vital.

What the Wright Brothers teach the sea freight world about cross-industry pollination — David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” is a history of how the Wright brothers invented human-powered flight in 1903 and helped develop a new mode of transport. Lessons for sea freight are to use a cross-industry innovation process; team design is important; and prolific progress can follow a breakthrough innovation.

‘Longitude’ provides timely advice on innovation — Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” is a history of how the Longitude Act of 1714 led to the invention of a way to determine one’s longitude while at sea. Lessons for sea freight are multiple roadblocks will deter innovators, iterate and generate competition to maximize innovation

Panama Canal story shows success can follow epic failure — David McCullough’s “The Path Between the Seas” is a history of the construction of the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914. Lessons for sea freight are proper scope definition is critical; optimism-driven leadership needs a backup plan; and epic failure can lead to later success.

Three lessons from the building of the transcontinental railroad — Stephen Ambrose’s “Nothing Like it in the World” is a history of the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad (from 1863 to 1869) connecting the U.S. West Coast with the rest of the United States Lessons for sea freight are government-private partnerships can achieve revolutionary things; head-to-head competition generates speed and innovation; and new knowledge enables revolutionary accomplishments.