Blog Engineering

The Missing Link: Crossing the Innovation Threshold

The Railway System

No other transporation system changes the face of our world and our everyday lives as the railway. It enourmously decreased both the time and the cost of transportation, both for goods and for people. It opened up national and international markets for goods. It enabled complex supply chains that span entire continents. The railway was the basis for mass production and consumption. As such, it made the industrialisation possible and catalyzed globalisation.

It also made long distance travel available for millions of people who had never left their home towns before. By allowing commuting over longer distances, it changed the face of our cities and allowed them to grow even bigger.

The railway system is an innovation that could only be brought to life by a number of improvements that were made at the same time. These improvements were made almost single-handedly by one man: George Stephenson, the “Father of Railways”.

The steam engine was known and used since the 18th century. The first person to use the steam engine for a locomotive was Richard Trevithick in 1801. However, his locomotives were unreliable and too heavy for the rails made of cast iron that were available at that time. Without a reliable rail, the steam locomotive was worthless.

George Stephenson did not invent the steam locomotive, but he was the first one who successfully build a railway system with it. He constructed new rails made of wrought iron that could carry his locomotives. He improved the efficiency of the locomotive by the introduction of the fire-tube boiler, by which he achieved unprecendented speeds and power. He also pioneered new ways in civil engineering during construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

By combining all these inventions and improvements, he created the first railway. The company he founded was the leading supplier of the nascent railway industry for years to come and he set the industry standards all over the world.

The Mobile Internet

The mobile internet changed the lives of billions of people all over the world. It lets us share our experiences and thoughts with friends or strangers wherever we are. It enables us to order goods or buy tickets instantianiously. We can find our way around unknown places or understand foreign languages.

The mobile internet has created complelety new markets for apps and digital goods. It has brought internet access to people who cannot afford neither a landline connection nor a computer.

The mobile internert is an example of an innovation that was awaiting to pass the innovation threshold. The technology for the mobile internet network was around for many years. The network providers could provide mobile internet to their users long before the users wanted it. The providers equipped their networks with 3G technology, creating internet bandwith that could not even be used with the mobile handset of the pre-smartphone era. They were awaiting the creation of a “killer application” to create the need for the bandwith that was available. But neither video chat nor WAP could ignite this demand.

Along came the smartphone. The combination of an easy-to-use touch interface, a browser that could show the same web pages as a desktop browser and apps that provided access to all the webs services finally created an easy way to access the mobile internet. This is what the users wanted. The invention of the smartphone as an access device to the mobile internet lifted it over the innovation threshold.

The following smartphone revolution swept away traditional companies such as Nokia and increased the profits of newcomers such as Apple or Samsung. The network providers, on the other hand, could not profit in the same way. They were reduced to providers of bulk internet access. The traditional profitable businesses of selling services such as telephony, messaging or WAP are almost gone.

In the case of the mobile internet, one single invention made the system cross the innovation threshold, changes lifes and businesses all over the world. And it was the companies who masteres the smartphone which profited the most from it.

Self-Driving Cars

Car makers all over the world are trying to introduce self-driving cars. No company has yet introduced such a car, but speculation about how a fully autonomous vehicle would change the world is abundant.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has introduced a system that classifies the level of autonomy of a car. According to this classification, currently available driver assistant reach Level Two. They will likely achieve Level Three in the near future. Only when cars reach the highest Level Five they are considered fully autonomous. This means the driver is relieved from his duties. Once this point is reached, autonomous driving will have crossed the innovation threshold.

A fully autonomous car might change the way we travel in a fundamental way. It might take away the jobs of taxi and truck drivers. It will make long commutes more bearable and change the way cities look like.

People might opt to not own a car themselves, but to call an automated taxi whenever they need it. This would impact the business model of car manufacturers, as fewer people would buy a car. This innovation might actually hurt the companies who help bring it about.

It is still a long way until Level Five of autonomous driving is reached. This gives both car manufactures, policy makers and other stakeholders enough time to adapt to the change.


To become an innovation, a technical system has to cross a threshold that makes it usable, affordable and improves users’ lives. The passing of this threshold can happen in many different forms. Sometimes, an individual or a company introduces a set of improvements and inventions that makes such innovation possible. In other cases, a technical system has almost reached the threshold of innovation and just one piece of the puzzle is missing, as in the case of the mobile internet.

It is important for inventors and companies to recognize how innovations work. An invention that does not lead to an innovation might be worthless on its own, like the locomotives of Richard Trevithick. Even a whole system like the mobile internet can stay below its potential without a way to access it easily. The profits were made by the companies which provided this missing link, not by the mobile network providers which invested in the infrastructure for it.

Innovation is inevitable. It is vitally important for each and every company to understand how innovations work and how to stay on top of them.

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