A quantum of disruption

“Disruption” is a goal we apparently all strive for in business.  We talk about disruptive technologies, disruptive business models and generally sound as if our desire is to break the mould.  For the most part, however, the day-to-day reality is a bit different. 

Many businesses have large capital investments that need to be paid off. Many see customer conservatism as risking failure for new processes or services – so they choose to avoid the genuinely disruptive. And innovation can be complicated – it is no longer just about making something new that people will buy. The increasing realisation that we have to live within our environmental means dictates that energy consumption of new products must be less than those they are replacing, that they should not use scarce material resources and that they must either generate minimal waste or be capable of efficient recycling. 

Actually, I am quite a fan of the way Lord Broers once defined it - “technologies do not disrupt on their own; markets are disrupted by a combination of technologies and other factors, and the disruption is usually only recognised in hindsight”. The goal therefore is usually to find enough “disruptiveness” to give your new product or service the edge over its competition, without scaring away the punters. This means that in reality innovation tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Overall this is no bad thing – and it does make our lives easier! - but it does mean that sometime the rhetoric is not matched by the reality.

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about our competition process and how we were recently greatly oversubscribed, with many applicants disappointed on receiving our letter to say that they have not passed the first hurdle.  As we go around talking to business, there are companies in that group about whom we would like to know more.

I was not really ready for what I found on the outskirts of Guildford last Thursday. I was visiting Gordon Murray Design – who had not got past the Expression of Interest stage in either our September 2007 Low Carbon Vehicles competition or our recent Demonstrator competition. I have to admit I went in ready to explain our processes and lay out their future options within the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform.  What I found felt to me like an almost fully-formed blueprint to change radically the way we make cars in the UK.  Given that Gordon Murray is probably best known for designing Formula 1 race cars, the McLaren FI and the Mercedes Benz SLR, it was a bit of surprise to find that his current project, the T25, is an efficient urban car with real green credentials.  The basic ideas were not new, but I have rarely seen them so fully realised. The “challenge” definition has a designer’s thoroughness – so that, for example, even though the internal arrangement is not “normal” it feels right. The manufacturing process benefits from meticulous planning and cost engineering, but the car will still pass all the relevant safety codes. Add to that one of the most complete analyses of life cycle impact I have seen and you have a potentially disruptive assembly of ideas and technologies.

Their only problem is that they have created this concept, and almost realised it, in the teeth of an economic downturn.  They are well past the stage where the remit or resources of the Technology Strategy Board can help them to launch their car – for that they need a large company to set up the new (probably turn-key) factory and establish the necessary supply chain and distribution system – but the flexibility of their system might allow the setting up of new consortia to develop variants of their basic car with alternative drive-trains. 

As I said I went there to give explanations. As it was, I was in receive mode for almost 4 hours. 

We talk a lot about innovation, its importance and its difficulty.  Every now and again, I see what it might look like, fully-formed. In the T25 and its associated design, its plan for manufacturing and its approach to sustainability I think I have just seen part of the future.  I hope so.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:32

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