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Who would ever have thought?

We strive to make connections, but often they're made for us.
David Macgregor

Innovation

We strive to make connections, but often they’re made for us

While we have commissions, committees or organisations responsible for just about every age, stage and rage of man, we lack a Commission for Unintended Consequences—the most potentially valuable commission.

It’s a fact that what we do in order to influence one thing will affect, in some way, another we didn’t intend to effect. To paraphrase Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action there is going to be an equal and totally unexpected reaction sometime in the future that’ll really piss someone off.” We need a think tank with overthe- horizon radar.

This came home to me the other day when I read a report that Pohutukawa trees had become an environmental nuisance in San Francisco. They were imported from New Zealand and planted in the 1970s, no doubt due to some warm and loving handsacross- the-sea environmental exchange. Our Kiwi Christmas trees have now become a scourge of Californian streets, their roots invading drains and breaking up footpaths.

Studying the knock-on effects of long-forgotten decisions has always fascinated me. Like the connection between horse’s rumps and the space shuttle booster rockets.

One of the major design considerations for the shuttle engineers was transport logistics. There were rather prosaic size constraints due to the vast cylinders being built in Utah and transported by rail across the country to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The advanced space missiles had to fit through humble, earthly rail tunnels.

To develop a complete mind: study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else – Leonardo da Vinci

The tunnels have a diameter determined 150 years ago by the size of rolling stock— wagons and carriages—which was determined by the wheelbase of the trains that pulled them, which in turn was determined by the gauge set by the engineers who first laid the tracks.

The earliest tracks in the US had varying gauges, but after the Union forces from the north defeated the southern Confederacy in the Civil War, the gauge of the northern tracks eventually prevailed throughout the country. Those northern tracks were largely established by English engineers who based the gauge on the tracks of the mother country. The English tracks were built to accommodate railway carriages built on jigs used by earlier coach-builders to construct horse-drawn carriages. The wheel width of those carriages was determined by the ruts left in the roads by the wheels of hay-wagons whose wheels, for hundreds of years, had run in the ruts left by chariots in the long, straight roads paved by Roman engineers 2,000 years ago. And, of course, the chariots were built to be drawn by two horses. Hence, the influence of a horse’s arse on space travel.

While the knowledge of such historical consequences may appear to be of little practical use and only incidentally interesting, at a deeper level it underscores the fact that everything is connected to everything else and that we can often look to nature and history for inspiration or explanation.

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There are many examples of discoveries and inventions having been authored or conceived by people making unlikely connections. Arthur Koestler coined a word for it—bisociation. It’s what happens when ideas from one field are borrowed and applied in another. Though not necessarily a conscious process, knowledge of a wide range of topics helps enormously in problem-solving and creative thinking. A great example of a breakthrough by someone working outside his normal field was the discovery of safety glass by French scientist Édouard Bénédictus. In 1903, while working in his laboratory, Bénédictus accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor. To his surprise, the flask broke without shattering, and more or less kept its shape.

It transpired the flask had previously held a solution of cellulose nitrate that had evaporated, depositing a thin, transparent film on the inside of the glass. Thinking it was clean, the lab assistant had placed it on a shelf, where it remained until the serendipitous breakage.

Toiling feverishly for 24 hours after the accident, Bénédictus produced the first piece of Triplex—a sandwich of glass and plastic.

Although it took some time to win the acceptance of automotive manufacturers, the expense of safety glass was far outweighed by its benefits and after being proven during World War 1 when used for lenses in gas masks, it eventually became the ubiquitous product we see today.

Perhaps a brainswarming session conducted by the Commission for Unintended Consequences might have accelerated the search for applications of Bénédictus’ discovery?