Op-Ed: The Popular Mechanics Of Maritime Innovation

John Konrad
Total Views: 99
September 30, 2020

by John Konrad (gCaptain) During a popular maritime innovation event today the Chief Innovation Officer of a major shipping company painted an enthusiastic picture of the future complete with shipboard engineers working with shoreside technicians troubleshooting an engine via virtual reality goggles and internet-connected treadmills that will let crew members compete in marathons. It sounded like a Popular Mechanics article about flying cars written in 1958.

This is a problem. It’s a serious problem not just at this event but at most maritime innovation events.

Ship captains operate in a highly complicated and chaotic and uncertain world. We must navigate our vessels through changing wind and currents, we must solve problems that nobody predicted, we must be navigators but also behavioral scientists managing things like action bias in our crew, panic in emergencies, confusion when the weather changes unexpectedly or a passing ship turns without warning, We must be kinesthetic thinkers who can feel warnings in the movement of our ships. We are fire chiefs, food safety inspectors, dieticians, system engineers, psychologists, priests, rabbis, and Imams. We navigate in an ocean of uncertainty.

Step off the bridge of any ship, turn aft, and look at your wake. You will not find a straight line but an oscillating course as the helmsman works to manage a myriad of dynamic forces.

Large shipping companies and regulators operate differently.  These corporations are highly linear, highly structured, resistant to change, and good managers of risk. They demand that the Captain iron out the course lines and submit noon reports as if the ship had traveled in a straight line and the engines operated at a specific RPM. They may provide solutions to injury, fatigue, evolving weather systems,  or they might put a priest on the phone when a crewmember’s loved one passes away. Most shipping companies do care but they can only offer solutions when the problems reach a certain threshold.

The December 1958 edition of popular mechanics featured a robot that could wrap Christmas presents and decorate a tree. During today’s event, one shipping company executive was asked how technology innovation can help mariners who are stuck at sea because of COVID. His answer was: “We are installing IOT Treadmills that will allow crewmembers to compete with friends aboard other ships. Who knows, they may even be able to compete in a marathon at home.”

The problem here should be obvious. Nobody asked for robots that could wrap presents in 1958 and no seafarer wants to compete in a virtual marathon at home. They want to be home. They want to wrap their presents with their kids.

gCaptain was launched in Silicon Valley around the time Facebook was first launched. I was friends with those guys, I attended countless technology conferences, I hung out at coffee shops with guys who are now billionaires. I even spent a day inside secret rooms at Apple, and another few days inside labs at Google.

Nobody I met in Silicon Valley spoke like a popular mechanics columnist.

Once a few friends were hanging out with Chris Sacca of SharkTank fame in Squaw Valley and somebody mentioned a virtual reality ski map app they were working on. This guy made the mistake of saying “Users will put on VR goggles while riding the ski lift and use our app to practice their next run”.

“How the Fuck do you know that?” asked Sacca. “How the hell do you know what they will do with your app?”

And he was right. The app died but they had already made detailed maps so they decided to print them out on microfiber cloths. Today millions of skiers around the world clean their goggle and look at these maps. The fundamental new technology was the maps they built, not the app.

The Innovation Officer at today’s event touched on this concern. He said that his company headquarters was not run by MBA’s but was managed by Captains and Engineers with “Real-world experience”. He said it’s not up to accountants and managers to decide what to build, and that every new startup idea is “presented to our Captain’s and Chief Engineers. They decide what technology we support.”

This is a slightly better approach than building flying cars and IOT treadmills but only slightly.

Chris Sacca lives in a ski town. He is an early adopter. He is an expert on recreational skiing. He has 10,000 hours on the slopes. He’s used ski maps his entire life….  but notice that he didn’t offer the startup any ideas, he did not paint a rosy picture of the future. He did not have answers but he did as the question: “How the Fuck do you know that?”

Today the big technology companies are being investigated in senate hearings and the public assumes that people like Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook knowing it would be used to manipulate voters. He didn’t.

I met twitter’s founder Evan Williams a few times and, at least back then, he never talked much about the specific use cases for twitter. He didn’t have a business plan or ask Harvard Business School to do a case study. He freely admitted that he didn’t know how Twitter would be used in the future but he was very curious to find out.

One time, when pinned down by a reporter, he did share what HE wanted to use twitter for.  Evan Williams wanted to track fire trucks moving around the city. HE wanted to use Twitter AS a digital police scanner and then he said “But I doubt that many users will care to do that.”

Twitter was not invented as a tool to be used by Presidential candidates, it was not invented so that you could mark yourself safe during a natural disaster, it was not invented for companies to get feedback directly from users… but it’s used for all those things.

Twitter wasn’t invented because Evan had a linear solution to a specific problem, it was invented because he was curious about what would happen if you could share text messages with everyone.

Today there are dozens of small maritime startups with revolutionary technology. There are dozens of big shipping companies hiring “innovation managers” and pouring money into new ideas. There are even a handful of startup accelerators that help startups find specific use cases for their technology.

But they all are looking for linear solutions to specific problems. They are all working on the same flawed 1950’s popular mechanics model of the future.

And, despite what they tell you at these events, none of them are having much success.

There is a better way.

The way forward is to recognize that linear thinking and specificity are the enemies of innovation. If the maritime community wants to innovate they need to stop trying to find ways to fit new technology neatly into business plans. They really have to stop trying to manipulate and control technology that nobody truly understands yet (Yes, I’m talking to you IBM and Maersk).

Innovation is not linear and to move forward we need to embrace chaos. We need to create opportunities for startups to meet actively sailing Captains (and engineers and front line managers). We need captains to spend time at MIT and MIT engineers to spend time aboard ships.

The good news.

The good news is that all is not lost. Behind the specific use cases being sold by startups like blkSAIL, Nautilus Labs, FreightFlows, Geollect, Sea Machines and wndw (to name just a few!) are fundamental technologies waiting to be unshackled from the bonds of corporate bureaucracy linear thinking. Behind each are founders who are curious and eager to learn.

Look at the photo at the top of that article. That’s curiosity, that’s optimism, that’s a startup founder. He has an PhD, did advanced research at MIT, and has a resume that you can’t understand, but that’s all subservient to curiosity and an eagerness to learn. That’s the type of person I met who revolutionized systems but instead of empowering people like this we have “directors of innovation” with MBAs and a few “innovation certificates” they earned online sitting in an officer waiting for startup founders to call. Standing by waiting to ‘help’ startup founders fill out forms and crawl through his company’s “innovation process”. Losing patience when a pitch doesn’t fit neatly into 30 minute presentation and the solution starts sounding a little “complicated” and messy.

The sad thing is that today’s founders do call “innovation managers” and fill out the forms, sign NDAs, and willingly shoehorn their technology so that it fits inside tiny budgets and can be managed by “our innovation process”. They try to build the flying cars and tree decorating robots that “innovation managers” are suggesting they build. They do call and subjugate themselves because nobody else is writing checks. “Innovation managers” and linear accelerators have a monopoly on talent.

Hardly anyone is funding real innovation today. The handful who are funding great startups, people like Ronny Waage,  must hustle harder than everyone else to compete with the big company “innovation managers” and their IoT treadmill desires.

Chief Innovation Officers are important but they must stop telling us what we need. Instead, they must champion smart startup founders who are curious, they must write checks knowing that early product versions will fail. They can provide some structure like deadlines and measure KPI’s but they must protect startups from red tape and linear thinking. The most encouraging startups take risks and pivot. They must fund ideas that some managers find frivolous or misguided.

More important than all… they must not force captains to evaluate startups within the confines of strictly linear bureaucratic corporate procedures. Instead, they need to educate their captains in the fundamentals of technology. They must ask startups to teach captains the basics of Moore’s law, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, AI feedback loops, and such.

Aboard every ship is a Captain and a Chief Engineer who know better than anyone how to navigate through fog and upon a dynamic, chaotic, and ever-changing sea. There are literally thousands of captains at sea right now with great ideas, intelligence, and a willingness to work hard. Captains who would love the chance to work shoreside for a few years.

California startups have found success not because they are just smarter than everyone else. They are successful because of the culture hates linear, values curiosity, has an abundance of people with a positive attitude AND a willingness to say “How the fuck do you know?”.  Most importantly there are very few “innovation managers” in the Valley but countless opportunities for startup founders meet, mingle, and interact.

Information needs to flow in all directions. Not linearly but from every angle. We need to open the doors, data, and gangways right now.

Innovation managers must invite startups to operate “in residence” at headquarters and aboard ships.  Captains must learn about technology and teach startup founders the fundamentals of pitch, roll, yaw, sagging, hogging, bank suction, dead reckoning, etc.

Most of all maritime Chief Innovation Officers need to stop talking about the future they predict and start funding the foundational technologies that they do not fully understand and cannot fully control.

We need to write checks and open our doors.

We need to write checks and open our doors.

Tradelens has disappointed everyone. Startups are choking. Innovation is happening at dead slow ahead while the world is changing rapidly around us and nothing but uncertainty lies ahead.

If we want profits, if we want to avoid risk, if we want to save lives at sea, if we want to survive in a post-COVID world then we can’t “manage innovation”. We can’t tell the startups what to build. We can’t think linearly and lose patience when pitches start sounding a little complicated and messy. No, we need to write checks, we need to offer our trust and support and we need to ask the best and the brightest startup founders, people like MIT startup founder Dr. Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, how WE can help THEM.

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