What is disruptive innovation?

Margaret Milde began working for Solar Ship in May, 2015. One year later, she reflects on Solar Ship’s mission and the true meaning of disruptive innovation.

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What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?

Not quite my first thought during my initial day at Solar Ship, but it was something similar. After completing a seemingly useless Masters degree in English, I went travelling and came home, broke and unemployed. 102 carefully crafted resumes sent out and not one response. Majoring in reading doesn’t seem useful to most employers.

 Learning About Disruption

I stumbled into a job at Solar Ship Inc. as a Research Assistant. Not having an engineering background and knowing nothing about the “transportation gap”, Solar Ship was an enigma. I parroted the phrase, “It uses buoyant gas and aerodynamics” whenever I was asked a question about the aircraft. And of course, connecting remote areas sounds great, but weren’t people already doing that? Weren’t NGOs and government agencies doing lots for remote areas? My ignorance of not only western China and landlocked Africa, but of the northern region of my own country, is embarrassing. I was naïve, complacent, and utterly misinformed.

It wasn’t a glamourous job, completing tasks for deeply intense, wildly provocative individuals; a little admin, a little story telling, a little research, lots of listening.

And while I was listening, there was a phrase that came up often: disruptive innovation. It sounded like an empty buzz phrase to me, words applied to food delivery apps and video streaming sites. Things that enhance the status quo, shift focus, but don’t overthrow, don’t disrupt.

Disruptive Transportation

One of my research projects was on the bush plane and what it had done for Canada, pushing the frontier forward, connecting remote areas of the country. Then, the bush plane and what it had done for cut-off regions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Wasn’t this disruptive innovation? Connecting isolated communities with necessities, having massive impact rather than introducing more conveniences for an already connected world?

But the ability of the bush plane to connect is limited. It needs lots of space to land and take off, making dense, forested areas difficult to access. It doesn’t get enough lift to bring large loads, and the cost is too high for most disconnected people.

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Solar Ship is the next iteration of the bush plane: an aircraft that disrupts the status-quo. Day-to-day technology ignores the inaccessible, favouring those who have freedom of movement. Disruptive innovation grants mobility to the immobile, connects the disconnected, and gives power to the powerless.

One year and one month later, I’ve learned that truly disruptive innovation is defined by persistence, drive, and the need to right a wrong.

Margaret Milde