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More risk can mean less danger. Without it, we are in danger of getting stuck in the wrong kind of loop says Pierre- Etienne Gautier…
Innovation. It’s probably one of the most overused words in the business world. Who doesn’t want their company or products to be described as innovative? But every now and then, something comes along that really does deserve the term, something that threatens to be genuinely (to use another over-worked buzz word) groundbreaking.
Hyperloop is one of those things: a completely new concept in freight and passenger transport. Inspired by a paper published in 2013 by Elon Musk – the famous tech guru and CEO of Tesla – the idea is that pods or capsules will be fired through de-pressurised tubes at incredible speeds – possibly in excess of 600mph and propelled along a powerful magnetic field. It raises the possibility of public transport at a speed faster than commercial flights and with all the added convenience of inter-city rail travel. For example London to Edinburgh in 40 minutes – less time than it takes to commute from Tunbridge Wells to Charing Cross.
It is hard to overstate the potential revolutionary importance of Hyperloop. Every major advance in human civilisation has coincided with a significant advance in transport technology, starting with the first draft animals and running through paved roads, canals railways, the internal combustion engine and jet flight. For a while it looked like commercial airlines were the last word, that we might make progress in terms of improved designs and efficiency, but that there were no new frontiers to cross. Hyperloop proves that we were wrong. A working prototype has already been successfully tested in the Arizona desert and Hyperloop One – the California-based company that is leading the development of the technology – plans to launch the first freight service by 2019 and to carry commercial passengers by 2021.
Innovation means risk
Is that too ambitious? Perhaps, and with anything that is truly innovative the possibility of failure is never far from view. But excitement is growing and interest from cities like Dubai is making that ambition look more and more realistic. Still, there is no denying that innovation means risk. And if you want to bind innovation deep into your DNA, as we seek to do at SYSTRA, you have to be prepared to step way outside of what makes you comfortable. Such a willingness to step outside of the safe space has long characterised our approach to projects and is one of the reasons that we were asked to join Hyperloop One’s technical advisory board. SYSTRA is one of the partners assessing the more-than 1,000 proposals from around the world in competition for the first commercial Hyperloop developments, looking for the three or four that are not only the most practical and detailed but which have the most imaginative and thoughtful commitment to the possibilities of the new technology, that show a real awareness of just how transformative it can be.
What that means in practical terms is, first, that people are placed at the centre of everything. Clients and users must be deeply involved in design and planning, which is risky, of course. If you ask what people want and need – and are really prepared to listen – you lose some control, which can be frightening, especially for engineers. But it can stimulate the release of those creative energies that are the driving force of true innovation. We have learned the value of a genuine collaborative approach through years of experience: and also learned that collaboration has to be real and creatively managed if it isn’t going to be collaboration in name only. We have run more than 72 client and user events over the last two and a half years, that’s more than 500 hours of workshops using highly innovative, hands-on approaches like Professor Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab Labs. It’s not simply a question of asking questions but of creating a space where deep collaboration can take place that will take us in directions we could not anticipate. Time and again we have seen how doing rather than just thinking sparks creativity and takes our collaborators and us to unexpected places. It is one more reason why we prefer to keep a role in project delivery and not just project management: doing as well as planning and directing keeps us creatively as well as practically engaged.
Principles of openness and collaboration
An understanding of the power of creative collaboration is what inspired Hyperloop from the start. Elon Musk, a long time champion of the principle of free information, put the idea out there so that any individual or organisation could pick them up and run with them. Those principles of openness and collaboration have inspired Hyperloop One and the extraordinary speed with which the project has travelled from a mere dream to something much more tangible. It has inspired SYSTRA too. Our projects innovate because we know how to stimulate a community of designers, planners, architects, designers, as well as clients and users.
Last year our team beat 67 others from 26 counties to win the competition to design an environmentally sustainable passenger and freight Hyperloop infrastructure for a notional development in Dubai in just two days. That is two days to create a fully integrated, sustainable design for 127km of Hyperloop and three stations. Just imagine what we could do in a week.
If and when that Hyperloop system – or something like it – gets built, the power of innovation will be felt. Not just at the level of the attention-grabbing disruptive new technology (exciting though that is) but deep under the skin in the users’ experience of the vehicles and the station environment and other structures. That is because integration is one of the fundamental principles driving the innovation teams at SYSTRA. New and exciting does not have to mean jarring and shocking. The new experience should integrate well with travellers’ expectations while extending their horizons and anticipating their changing needs such as better connectivity, more information and better acoustics that compete less with personal music systems.
Better all round
But innovative integration is not enough. We have to be able to build and run systems better too. Optimising the use of materials and operating at ever higher levels of efficiency – better for the end user, of course, but also offering better value for money. What if we could cut material costs for building high speed railways from current levels but with no reduction in performance, for example? We are currently drafting a technical guidebook on how to do just that.
In a few years it will be clear whether Hyperloop has delivered its promise of revolutionary change. But one way or the other, the excitement of real innovation that it represents should continue to be felt throughout the world of transport planning and design and the lessons it offers for the power of open, collaborative approaches for solving complex problems should continue to be learned.
At SYSTRA we plan to keep reminding ourselves that innovation must be more than a buzz word, but should be at the root of the business culture for any ambitious 21st century enterprise. It means learning to love risk, but more risk can mean less danger. Without it, we are in danger of getting stuck in the wrong kind of loop.
Pierre- Etienne Gautier is vice president innovation at SYSTRA
Tel: 01268 711 811
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Rail Professional is a monthly business-oriented railway magazine read by the industry’s managers. Launched in 1996, the magazine was born out of the privatisation of the industry and the need to provide a managerial forum for the new rail business community.