It was heartening to see the LifeCar — the stunning, zero-emissions prototype from Morgan — creating such a stir at the current Geneva Motor Show.
You can read the full story behind this highly innovative vehicle here, but it is interesting for more than the technology inside it.
It is easy to assume that the big technical breakthroughs in the automotive sector will come from the big players, the multinational OEMs with massive R&D budgets.
The LifeCar is a refreshing example of innovation from a niche, albeit highly-respected, player in the market.
The visionary engineer behind the project, Hugo Spowers, makes the valid point that smaller firms such as Morgan can be nimble on their feet. This raises a wider question — one that gets to the heart of the whole innovation process.
The question is this: will a giant corporation with a vast, entrenched market position be more or less conducive to innovation than a much smaller company?
Consider the large corporation. Without innovation it will lose ground to its competitors, so the pressure is on from the top of the company to come up with a steady stream of inspired technological developments. Those massive budgets are brought to bear and soon the R&D departments are in full swing, and innovation will surely follow. But how quickly, and at what cost? Spowers’ argument is that when a technology is at a relatively mature phase, innovations from the big established players tend to be slow, incremental and expensive.
He claims that big breakthroughs, by contrast, can come more quickly and at much lower cost from smaller players in the market. He makes a powerful case, but we would suggest that the crucial factor in the process isn’t necessarily related to the size of the business — some of the world’s biggest companies are also the most innovative — but rather to the willingness of those leading a project to collaborate.
The LifeCar itself was the result of a meeting of minds that included Morgan itself, Qinetiq, BOC and Oxford University. By working with these partners in what was presumably an open and creative project environment, Morgan achieved its goal of the fantastic vehicle on show at Geneva.
Time and again, from businesses large and small, it is collaboration that seems to be the midwife of innovation. (With great difficulty, we will resist the temptation to urge you to begin thinking of great candidates for The Engineer Technology & Innovation Awards, which celebrate collaboration and will be upon us again soon. Then again, we can resist anything but temptation…)
Andrew Lee, editor