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Innovation/Global Risk 

Titanic’s Lesson for the World 

By Shlomo Maital  


   The RMS Titanic sank almost a century ago.  Since then she has served as a sad lesson for innovators, on the consequences of arrogance.  Built to carry 3,500 people, Titanic had 2,223 people on board during its maiden voyage, and sank at 2:20 a.m., on April 14, 1912, with 1,517 people perishing in the frigid Atlantic waters.  The reason: There were lifeboats only for 1,178 people, because the Titanic was “unsinkable”. 

   But I believe there is another key lesson the Titanic conveys:  Strategic agility. Nations need to constantly evaluate where their competitive advantage lies, and adapt and reinvent it when technology and markets change and shift.

    Titanic was built in the shipyards of Harland and Wolff for the Cunard Lines, in Belfast,  Ireland.   It was the only shipyard in the world capable of building the advanced vessel, which weighed 45,000 tons (a modern aircraft carrier weighs over twice that, but recall that it has a large steel deck for launching and landing planes).  It was built by a highly skilled workforce of 15,000 workers, all men (no women were allowed to do the hard physical work).  But women also had good jobs created by Titanic – they wove the textiles needed for the 45,000 napkins and 12,000 sheets, and thousands of tablecloths used on Titanic.   One of the key skills in building Titanic was riveting. It took a riveter five years to learn the craft, driving white-hot rivets into steel plates, so that they could contract when they cooled and tighten the joints.  Many millions of such rivets went into the Titanic.  Riveters were paid according to the number of rivets they drove. 

    At the time, Ireland had a global competitive advantage in shipbuilding.  As the world changed, and as shipbuilding evolved and moved to places like Korea, Ireland lost jobs, income and exports.  In part, Ireland was preoccupied with its struggle for independence from Britain (in the end, Belfast remained in what became Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom).  It took Ireland some 75 years, until a few clever officials from the Irish Industrial Development Agency figured out how to attract American companies to Ireland, to generate quality jobs like those the Titanic once supplied.  During those 75 years, many Irish emigrated abroad, because they found no work at home.  Ireland itself became not unlike the Titanic – it sank, becoming one of the poorest countries in Europe. 

    Ireland again finds itself in trouble. After a hasty government bailout of its troubled banks, the Irish people drown in debt, and the new Irish budget announced today (actually, the budget is so tough, the government will reveal it over a two-day period, to soften the blow) is severely austere.  The Prime Minister’s tough address to the nation backfired, as the Irish people seek solutions, not statements of the problem.  Unlike the Titanic, Ireland seems to be sinking ever so slowly – but surely.  The people of Ireland deserve better.   

   Today nations are sinking, in Europe and elsewhere, like Titanic.  They are unable to adapt to changing geopolitical realities.  As we mark a century since Titanic’s launch and tragic sinking, let us recall what Titanic teaches. 


Innovation/Global Risk 

How to Win a Nobel Prize II

By Shlomo Maital



 Prof. Avram Hershko, Technion 

 In my Oct. 7 blog, I told the story of how Prof. Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize, for his discovery of quasi-crystalline matter.  The formula he used was: 1. Read Jules Verne and dream, and 2. Believe in yourself, and maintain your integrity, if you see something strange, insist that you saw it, despite the nay-sayers, famous ones, who tell you, that you didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t. 

   I recently had the privilege to interview another Nobel Prize winner from my university, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Prof. Avram Hershko, who won the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 2004 for his discovery of ubiquitin, which holds the key to understanding why cells die.  Based on his discovery, a new drug, Velcade, was developed, which has saved the lives of many thousands of cancer sufferers (including a close American friend of Prof. Hershko).   

  Here is Prof. Hershko’s formula for winning a Nobel, which is somewhat different from Dan Shechtman’s.

  1.  For your research, pick a problem you believe is important, but that is NOT in the mainstream of scientific research.  On his post-doc in the U.S., Hershko found that he was joining a 25-person team, who were mostly focusing on cell division (i.e. cell growth).  He chose to study why cells die, because he thought it was important and because no-body else was interested in studying it.  This is the scientific equivalent of ‘blue oceans’ – seek areas that are not crowded, because research topics already crowded are competitive and likely to be dominated by those with massive resources. 

 2.  Be patient and persistent.  If you choose a hard problem, Hershko notes, you will need to be very patient in understanding the phenomenon under study.  Hershko is a true bench scientist.  When I interviewed him, he was gracious, but in the midst of an experiment…  and he confessed to deeply loving bench work, which the Nobel Prize did not in any way interrupt (except for 6 months of travel on behalf of Technion). 

 3.  Be lucky.  Scientific breakthroughs come often through lucky breaks. But, Hershko cautioned, you need to be prepared for the luck.  When you get unexpected results, often they are tossed out.  Don’t!  Recognize your luck, and look into why those results occurred, against your expectations.  As Pasteur affirmed, “chance favors the prepared mind.”  Prepare your mind.  And keep it open.  Do not allow ‘perceptual blindness’ to prevent you from seeing what really exists.  Shechtman saw something that could not possibly be there.  Hershko saw results that were highly unexpected.  Both had minds open enough to see what was there.

  4.  Stay small.   Nobel Prizes often (though not always) bring the possibility of a flood of new research money.   Prof. Hershko has purposely, and doggedly, kept his lab research small and intimate, so that he can maintain control and his own active leadership.  Size and scale often are bitter enemies of innovation.  By keeping his lab small, Hershko maintains its agility, flexibility and manageability.  He also has maintained his own active bench research, rather than become a ‘manager’ whose name appears on scientific papers but who is not really involved.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
December 2011
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