Did John Kay Teach Uber About Innovation?

How Uber's meteoric rise bears resemblence to the work of an Industrial Revolution pioneer


There are few beacons of innovation currently shining as brightly as that of Uber, who have in under seven years have become as synonymous with taxi cabs as iPhone with smart mobile devices. The San Fransisco-based giants found a way to not only wrest control of a significant market share in the cities they invaded, but to render the previous status quo hopelessly outdated in the face of a more user-friendly, technologically-savvy offering.

As Uber’s success has ballooned, so too has its pool of detractors, with many mourning the decline of what had previously been a profession built on the tradition of an in-depth knowledge of a particular city’s road map. Backlash against what is ostensibly sound technological progress, though, is nothing new.

The Financial Times at the end of January 2016 compared the reaction to Uber’s meteoric rise with that of John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle - a key development in the weaving process that proved a pre-requisite for automated machine looms in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. A grand comparison perhaps, but the similarities between the two developments extend far further than in just their reception.

Both are examples of a very particular kind of disruptive innovation; one that does not fit the conventional definition of the term. Traditionally, the strategy of disruption begins with either entrance into the market as a cheaper alternative to the norm (but with an openly low-end product) or by targeting non-consumers, i.e. creating a market where none existed before.

Both Uber and the flying shuttle offered neither. Uber’s reduced fares demand no sacrifice in terms of user experience; if anything, they have enhanced the process by removing the need for cash and offering an unparalleled wait time. Similarly, rather than carving a niche and expanding from there, Uber managed quite the opposite, securing a stake in the mainstream before expanding to serve those with little interest in the use of taxi companies.

Unfortunately for the skilled victims in the case of both Uber’s rise and that of Kay’s automated loom, the product offered by the new competition improved on the existing practices considerably - in ease of use, cost and productivity - and, rather than slowly developing into an industry competitor, changed the landscape of the industry altogether. Sat nav has made 'The Knowledge' - the in-depth study of routes in London, changed little since its inception in 1865 - redundant in the same way that Kay’s shuttle led to the eventual redundancy of Britain’s weavers.

Kay encountered both violent and legal opposition to his invention and struggled to properly monetize his patent rights, crossing the channel before selling his technology to the French government. He was rewarded with both a handsome salary and a generous pension, with the flying shuttle becoming freely available. The French were similarly able to push daguerreotype photography to the world through their openness to innovation, with Henry Fox Talbot - an English inventor - seeing his perhaps superior model take time to gain traction up against the ‘free to the world’ gift bestowed by the French hierarchy.

Uber will, of course, not be the final development in transportation to cause a stir and ignite a fierce response. Driverless cars are moving ever closer to becoming a reality and, as the FT’s own John Kay speculates, the very drivers currently benefitting from Uber may be on the pickets to protest their own redundancy in years to come.

But, as the earlier Kay, Uber, and the French government during the Industrial Revolution knew, it is better to welcome innovation with open arms and manipulate it your advantage than treat it with skepticism and shun.

If Kay helped spark the Industrial Revolution, Uber have harnessed the digital equivalent to transform an industry previously protected by its exclusivity. 

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