Innovation in the Balkans – Part II – Dalmatia, Istria, and Bosnia-Hercegovina
This is the second article in a two-part series on innovation in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe. My previous article focused on innovation in the northern part of the Balkans, including northern Croatia and Slovenia. This article directs its attention towards the south and west includes coastal Croatia (the regions of Istria and Dalmatia) as well as the independent country of Bosnia-Hercegovina. These areas exhibit the influence of the Ottoman Empire to the south as well as Italy (especially Venice) to the west. My travels in Bosnia-Hercegovina consisted of the tragic city of Sarajevo, which went from hosting the Winter Olympic games in 1984 to destructive warfare just a few years later, experiencing a military siege longer than any in World War II. I also visited the city of Mostar, which saw fighting between Croatian and Muslim forces that resulted in the collapse of an ancient bridge that was the symbol of the city. I also ventured to the Croatian coast, which included the regions of Dalmatia in the south, with the famous cities of Dubrovnik and Split, and Istria in the north, consisting of Rovinj, Pula, and Porec. Like their brethren in the northern Balkans, these cities reflected the influence of many civilizations over the centuries, and in these areas we see a number of lessons for the modern innovator.
One of the things that surprised me about Yugoslavia was hearing that in the 1970s and 80s, a Yugoslavian passport was among the most valuable possessions in the world. Yugoslavia was a leader of the non-aligned movement during part of the Cold War, which meant that the country pledged allegiance neither to the West (the US, NATO, and others) nor to the Eastern Bloc (the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, and others). As such, the holder of a Yugoslav passport could travel relatively freely in almost any country in the world. While an American could not easily cross a border into Russia or Vietnam, a Yugoslavian citizen could go to either place with little trouble. Likewise, the Yugoslavian citizen could also go to Italy, Austria, or the US if needed. Indeed, one Slovenian I spoke to said that as a child her family would go on trips to Austria and purchase large quantities of consumer goods (which were hard to find in socialist Yugoslavia). One of the reasons that Yugoslavia won the rights to host the 1984 Winter Olympics, besides the beauty and accessibility of their mountains and other venues, was because the International Olympic Committee knew that by placing the games in a neutral country they would not see boycotts by the East and West as had occurred in the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. Sadly, standing next to the Olympic Stadium in Sarajevo today one can see several fields of white gravestones where the residents buried the victims of the 1992-1996 Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo.
Innovation Perspective – For the modern innovator, a Yugoslav passport is an ideal to which one should aspire in the sense that one should attempt to avoid being aligned with any part of one’s organization or a client’s organization. An innovator should be a neutral party and should not come across as biased in support of one group or another. Rather, the innovator should be able to move freely across groups. This is important for several reasons. First, the innovator needs to be able to communicate openly with people from various parts of the organization both to get new ideas from them and to obtain their perspective on existing innovation work. Second, the innovator needs to be seen as someone working for the good of the company as a whole rather than to the benefit of one group or organization within the company. Finally, the innovator needs to be able to garner support from all quarters for a project, especially one that significantly disrupts the status quo. An innovator viewed as partisan or favoring one group over another will not be able to obtain widespread support for his or her innovation initiative, and it is this broad support that is needed to help an innovative project go from idea to fruition.
It is unfortunate that a city as beautiful as Sarajevo has such a tragic history. Surrounded on all sides by soaring mountains and a gently-flowing river, the city has represented an ethnic melting pot and microcosm of the crossroads of civilization for much of its history. Sarajevo is one of the few places in the world where one can see an enormous Catholic Cathedral, then walk a few meters to a Serbian Orthodox Church, then walk again a short distance to an Islamic mosque and a Jewish Synagogue. Yet this city of toleration and diversity has had a long and sad history. Prior to the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, the city was mostly known as the site where one of the triggering events of World War I took place.
On June 28, 1914, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were visiting Sarajevo to review his Empire’s armed forces in the region (at the time Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). While driving through the city, they were attacked by a Serbian anarchist who threw a bomb at their open-topped motor carriage. Luckily, the bomb missed its target and injured a nearby soldier, leaving the royal couple unharmed. Later that day, while driving through another part of the city so the Archduke could visit the wounded soldier from the morning attack, the couple’s driver made a wrong turn down an alley which gave another Serbian anarchist a chance to shoot the royals at point-blank range, which he succeeded in doing. The assassination set off a chain of events that led to declarations of war of European states against each other, mobilization of troops, and the start of World War I, in which millions of people lost their lives from 1914 to 1918.
Indeed, this assassination in Sarajevo was one of the reasons that the Balkans had been considered a flashpoint for conflict in the modern era. As far back as 1871, the German Chancellor Bismarck stated that “[o]ne day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent war in Bosnia, some of the opponents of Western intervention in the conflict cited the propensity for conflicts in the Balkans to lead to global conflagrations as a reason not to become involved in the fighting on either side. I asked several Bosnians about this, and they said that they thought the inaction on the part of the US and EU was because the Western powers were trying to figure out who the bad guys were in the conflict. My response was that we knew the people laying siege to Sarajevo in 1992 were the bad guys, but we were afraid at first to act because we feared triggering a wider war. Tragically, I believe that if we had acted quickly and forcefully at the beginning, we could have saved thousands of lives in a war that did not need to happen.
Innovation Perspective – Since I first read about Sarajevo and World War I, I had always wanted to visit the site of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand not for macabre reasons but to understand better why this was such a momentous event in world history. Indeed, few conflicts of such significance are linked back to a single event that can be located so precisely on the map. The site of the assassination is on the Obala Kulina bana, next to the Latin Bridge that crosses the Miljacka River. Today there is a small glass monument there and a plaque that discusses the event, though a larger memorial was removed from the site due to political tensions related to the significance of the site to the Serbian nationalists. At that point on the main road, there is a tight alley formed by the road called Zelenih beretki. The main road that runs alongside the river is two lanes wide with a sidewalk on each side and quite open and would be easily protected by soldiers riding alongside, whereas the alley is a tighter one-lane road. A carriage could move quickly on the open road whereas in the narrow alley one’s movements would be constrained. Standing at that corner, after I absorbed the historical importance of the site, my first thought was why did the driver turn down that alley?
After walking the streets of this area several times, I could come up with no logical reason why such a turn would have been made, though some historians speculate that the driver was a willing accomplice to the crime. Although as innovators we do not face life and death situations of this nature, I could not help but think of the critical nature in important situations of making sure everyone is on the same page and reading from the same script in terms of a work effort. For example, if we are presenting a new idea to a key decisionmaker, we need to make sure everyone involved in the effort understands the minute by minute choreography of the presentation with several rehearsals to make sure there are no mistakes, for simple malfunctions or sloppy presentation style can reflect poorly on the overall project, even if the idea is a great one.
Sarajevo Airport Tunnel
After the death of the Yugoslavian Leader Marshall Tito in 1991, the former republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina declared its independence. Shortly thereafter it was attacked by Serbian forces who sought to incorporate the Bosnian land into the new Republic of Serbia. The Serbian forces viewed Sarajevo, which was the capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina, as the linchpin to the entire country. By taking over Sarajevo, the Serbs believed they could control the country and dictate terms to the Bosnians. The city itself, surrounded by mountains and easily surrounded, came under siege by Serbian forces from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, for a total of 1,425 days. This was the longest siege of a capital city in world history and fully a year longer than the horrific siege of Leningrad by the Nazis in World War II. Walking around the city today one cannot escape its sad recent history. Everyone one turns, one sees buildings with bullet holes and shrapnel damage from the war. Cemeteries are a regular sight, with hundreds of white gravestones dated 1992 or 1993. In some places one sees buildings that look more like they belong in war-torn Syria than in southeastern Europe.
During the siege, the Sarajevans devised an ingenious means of getting people and supplies in and out of the city despite the omnipresent Serbian forces. Serb forces controlled all of the access points to the city except for one, the Sarajevo international airport. Located to the southwest of the city, the airport was under United Nations control (for flights carrying relief supplies and diplomatic personnel) and on the other side of the airport (away from Sarajevo), was territory controlled by the Bosnian Army. In the early stages of the siege, some Sarajevans ran across the runway to safety but this soon proved to be an impossible gauntlet due to Serbian snipers, so the Bosnians decided to tunnel under the runway. They built disguised entry points to a tunnel on both sides of the runway and dug for nearly 1,000 feet. The tunnel shaft was small, often flooded, unventilated, and dangerous at both ends once one emerged from underground. Over the course of the war, the tunnel saw as many as 4,000 people per day transiting and as much as 30 tons of much-needed weapons and food for the city to survive the siege (the UN had placed an arms embargo on the conflict which meant that any weaponry to defend Sarajevo had to come in through the tunnel). Over time this added up to millions of pounds of material the could move into and out of the city. The Serbs suspected a tunnel was in operation (and a New York Times article mentioned it during the war) but they were never able to figure out its exact location and because it ran under the airport, they could not undertake a major military campaign to find it.
Innovation Perspective – Although the Sarajevans proved quite ingenious in the construction of the tunnel without typical tunnel-building supplies (they had to work in secret with no loud machinery and had little concrete or wood since most of the trees in Sarajevo had been chopped down for firewood), the innovative aspect of this story lies in how the Sarajevans used a neutral third party to devise a solution to a problem. UN control of the airport gave the Sarajevans a means of getting outside of their city without having to confront directly the overwhelming forces that were arrayed against them. For the modern innovator, the parallel would be when we are faced with a challenge, such as a competitor’s product that is performing well against ours, and rather than confronting that product head-on, we find a different angle of attack that takes advantage of a third-party solution to put us in a better position to pursue our original competitor.
Not everything in Sarajevo speaks of the assassination in 1914 or the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Some parts of the city, such as the old Ottoman Quarter (the Bascarsija), are timeless and make one feel as though nothing has changed in hundreds of years as one strolls from the modern Austro-Hungarian-influenced part of Sarajevo into the old town area that exudes a distinctive Turkish flavor. I was even able to find my favorite Arabic dessert in this area – kunefeh – which I had last tasted in the city of Nazareth in Israel. One particularly charming road in the old Ottoman Quarter is Coppersmith’s Street, where one can find any and all manner of copper goods. One can see and hear modern-day coppersmiths busy at work plying their craft, hammering the soft metal into new works to sell to tourists.
While walking down coppersmith street and gazing at the wondrous copper works for sale, I began to wonder about the competitive aspects of the retailers in this area. Shop after shop was selling copper goods and many were selling the exact same items. Prices on most goods were readily visible and very consistent from one shop to another. I began to wonder whether a copper retailer would want to be on this street or if he or she would be better off in another section of the city where he or she could raise prices and get more attention from shoppers. Indeed, the phenomenon of similar businesses clustering in the same location is an ages-old characteristic of cities around the globe (such as the diamond district in New York or the more modern example of new car dealers all on the same road in a city). The concentration of sellers, presumably, also leads to a concentration of buyers, which is what the sellers are seeking in the first place.
Innovation Perspective – Rather than dive into this from an economics standpoint, I spent some time thinking about how an innovator would approach this dilemma of whether to be close to one’s most immediate competitors. While an innovator would always want to be careful not to reveal an innovation one is working on before it is ready to hit the marketplace, one should be extremely cognizant of what one’s competition is doing, both in terms of products and services as well as pricing. While an innovator is focusing intensely on developing a new idea, a competitor might take a step to render that new idea obsolete before it is ready for the marketplace. Thus the innovator needs to dedicate a certain amount of time to keeping an eye on the competition, almost to the point of making it a regularly scheduled activity. An innovator designing a new mobile application, for instance, should periodically check on the competitor’s mobile app to see how it is progressing. What this insight made me realize about the coppersmith street is that it provided more than a convenient way for customers to find sellers. It also allowed the sellers to keep an eye on each other, as one would see quickly if a competitor rolled out a new product that proved popular with customers. The proximity was as much about keeping an eye on the competition as it was keeping an eye on customers, and it behooves modern innovators to spend some amount of time making sure that they keep an eye on what their competitors are doing in the marketplace.
The Old Bridge in Mostar
Like Sarajevo, Mostar is a beautiful city with a sad recent history. Ringed by mountains and pierced by a fast-running and cold river, Mostar over its history saw the peaceful coexistence of people of different faiths and ethnicities, but this diverse makeup proved to be a disadvantage when war broke out in 1992, with fighting erupting between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the city and its environs. Today, Mostar is a quiet and peaceful place and the city as a whole is charming and quite pleasant to visit. Like many other cities around the world, Mostar is one of the places that is best known for a single tourist attraction – the Old Bridge (Stari Most, from which the city gets its name). This single attraction is so significant that busloads of tourists will alight from their cruise ships or hotel rooms in Sarajevo or Dubrovnik and ride over two hours to see this sight. The Old Bridge is a magnificent pedestrian bridge that crosses the river Nevetna and connects the two sides of the old town of Mostar. The stone bridge has a single arch and is 29 meters long, 24 meters above the river, and 4 meters wide and is stunning in its elegance and its simplicity. Tourists who approach the bridge through the narrow, cobblestoned streets of the old Turkish quarter in Mostar are stunned when the bridge appears in front of them. The best way to describe it is as a work of art, as if it is something that was painted on a canvas rather than an actual structure of beige-colored stone soaring above a blue-green river.
When Mostar was part of the Ottoman Empire, the only river crossing at this location was provided by a swaying, rickety, wood-and-chain suspension bridge that was quite a challenge to cross. In 1557, the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent ordered his architects to design a new bridge to replace the wooden structure. According to legend, Suleiman wanted the shape of the bridge to resemble the curve of the eyebrows of his favorite mistress. The task of building the new bridge fell upon Mimar Hayruddin, who was the student of a leading Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan. The penalty for failing to please the Emperor in this endeavor was death, and at the time no one in the Ottoman Empire had ever completed a stone arch bridge spanning a river as wide and soaring as high as this one would need to be.
At this point, Hayruddin did what modern innovators do time and again today when faced with an intense challenge – he built a prototype. If one walks a few hundred feet past the Old Bridge down the Jusovina Road towards the Black Dog Pub, one sees a smaller stone bridge spanning the Radobolja River. This smaller bridge bears an uncanny resemblance to the huge Old Bridge, and as it turns out, this smaller bridge was a prototype built by Hayruddin in 1558 to confirm his architectural assumptions and construction techniques prior to working on the larger bridge, which was completed eight years later in 1566. The smaller bridge allowed Hayruddin to work on his design on a smaller scale, as this river crossing was shorter in width and at a lower height than the one required for the actual bridge. The prototype proved to be a success and continues to stand to this day, though it was damaged in an earthquake at one point and had to be repaired. The larger Old Bridge survived for hundreds of years, making it through World War II (when Nazi troops drove small tanks over it), but ultimately fell into the river on November 9, 1993 in a shameful episode when Croatian forces shelled the bridge and destroyed it, even though it was of no military strategic value in the conflict. The bridge was rebuilt using traditional building techniques with European Union funding using much of the original stone retrieved from the river.
Innovation Perspective – While it is interesting to see that as far back as 1557 innovators saw the value of building prototypes before undertaking challenging endeavors, what is most interesting about the story of the Old Bridge in Mostar is the nature of the prototype itself. We often think of a prototype as something small and disposable in which the only purpose of the prototype is to validate assumptions one is making about the end product. Prototyping is seen as just another extension of the testing process in that it is a slightly more intense test because it involves the physical creation of a solution that needs to be proven.
Hayruddin could have created a miniature bridge in a workshop-like setting to test the assumptions of his design and likely would have yielded useful information about the larger project. Yet he chose to create an actual, working span that would be used by city residents for hundreds of years, spanning a small river that separates two parts of Mostar. For this prototype the innovator chose to make something useful rather than something simply disposable, thus he accomplished multiple objectives at the same time. We see this in many modern examples, such as in a recent BBC World Service podcast on using drone delivery for medical products in Malawi, Africa. In the first test of the service, in which a pilotless drone would deliver critical medicine across rural Malawi to a small village, the team lead chose to risk a payload of actual drugs rather than simply a dummy load. While this was more risky and costly if the endeavor failed, it was heartening to see that the prototype work resulted in actual positive benefits even before the full delivery program got underway.
Mostar International Airport
When one passes by the Mostar International Airport, the first question that comes to mind is why the airport is built so close to a mountain range. Although the region in general is quite mountainous, there are several places in the area where there is sufficient flat land away from the mountains to accommodate an airport. When one is designing an airport, the general idea is to have as much open airspace around the runway as possible to make it easier for planes to take off and land without having to worry about the mountains. Although in some places, such as Cusco, Peru, this is impossible due to the terrain, in general the preference is for as much open space as possible around an airfield. Interestingly, Peru is building a new airport near Cusco that is in a high plateau to allow for more open space and a less precipitous landing, as well as direct international flights to get tourists closer to Machu Picchu.
Another curiosity about the Mostar airport emerges when one examines a satellite overhead view of the airfield. Running perpendicular to the runway are two taxiways that lead directly into the nearby mountain then disappear. Upon closer examination, these roads lead to aircraft hangars built deep into the rock. As it turns out, the Mostar airport used to be a key facility for the Yugoslavia air force and these tunnels deep into the mountain provided storage space and facilities to support dozens of aircraft. The tunnels are tall and wide enough to house MiG jet fighters and other military hardware, and the tunnels also housed facilities for maintenance crews and storage for spare parts, armaments, and other equipment. Presumably these facilities would be more secure than the typical aircraft shelter that is a single slab of concrete in a dome shape next to a runway. These facilities would also be harder to see from the air in case of an attack.
Innovation Perspective – The location of the Mostar airport reveals an innovation strategy that is useful when faced with the challenge of coming up with a solution to a problem. It is sometimes possible for an innovator to take an explicit weakness and convert it into an area of strength. In other words, one can find innovative solutions by spending time thinking about one’s greatest weaknesses and figuring out how to transform those disadvantages into advantages. The innovator can examine areas where his or her product or service is weak relative to the competition and dive into those areas to look for opportunities for transformation. Situating an airfield so close to a mountain would at first seem like a weak strategy because of the impact such a placement would have on flight operations. Yet that weakness begets a greater strength by giving the military ready access to a large system of underground tunnels to protect the key assets of the airfield. In looking for areas to which to apply innovation, one can focus on weaknesses and determine how to convert those directly into strengths rather than trying to eliminate the weakness altogether.
Coastal Croatia – Dalmatia and Istria
While few tourists venture to northern Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina, coastal Croatia is a globally-known vacation destination. The two key regions on the coast are Dalmatia to the south and Istria to the north, and both consist of seemingly innumerable islands on the cool, clear blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Both regions reflect heavily the impact of nearby Italy, though the influences vary in shape and form, as Istria definitely has more of an Italian influence than Dalmatia. The hands-down leader of the pack in terms of tourist renown is the walled coastal city of Dubrovnik, located at the southern end of Dalmatia. Known as the “pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik is a city with hundreds of years of history and, not surprisingly, a fair amount of innovation lessons.
Dubrovnik sits perched on a rocky promontory jutting into the Adriatic at the crossroads of trading routes across empires. Vying for dominance with Venice to the northwest on the other side of the Adriatic, the city went through various phases of outside domination interspersed with self-governance, culminating with its current status as part of the independent country of Croatia. The city itself is quite small, with only 1.2 miles of walls encircling the entirety of its environs. One can complete a transit of the walls in about an hour, while one can walk from one entrance gate to the other side of the city in just a few minutes.
Just outside the old harbor of the city one sees a large, long building with the same stone and orange tiled roof design of much of the houses in Dubrovnik. This structure is the Lazzaretto and was used as a quarantine station. Early in its history when the city was known as the Republic of Ragusa (in the 14th century and beyond), Dubrovnik existed in a world of plagues and epidemics that spread quickly through a world of sea and land travel, poor hygiene, and a lack of scientific knowledge of the vectors of disease transmission. The city rulers decreed that any ship arriving from a region prone to plague or other epidemic had to wait in quarantine for 40 days before its passengers or cargo would be allowed to enter the walled city of Dubrovnik. In fact, the term quarantine is derived from “quaranta giorni,” which means 40 days. Originally the quarantine facilities were offshore on deserted islands, but in the 15th century they were moved closer to the city to the Lazzaretto structure that we see today. Historians view this effort as generally successful in that epidemics were largely controlled in Dubrovnik. When one sees how compact and densely-packed the streets and buildings are inside the city walls, one can understand the need for this program. Other maritime cities around the world, such as Venice, also had similar quarantine techniques.
Innovation Perspective – Seeing the quarantine station outside Dubrovnik led me to think about how one controls the flow of ideas in and out of an innovation program. One of the challenges of an innovation leader is how to strike a balance between working on advancing existing initiatives versus the need to always keep one’s eyes and ears attuned for new ideas that could impact current programs or be the source of new ideas. With the plethora of media and information available to the modern innovator, this flood of new information can sometimes be unrelenting, and one could find oneself being constantly distracted in one’s work effort by the new information that keeps arriving. Sometimes this new information is so important that it could be warrant stopping work on a major initiative, as we saw in Part I of my series on the Balkans in the Nikola Tesla visit to Zagreb. Yet this situation probably occurs less frequently than the intrusion of new ideas that prove to be mere distractions.
One potential way to manage this would be to institute a quarantine for new ideas in one’s program, with a fixed amount of time one sets to wait to dive into a new idea. While 40 days is certainly too long in today’s competitive landscape, 5 or 10 business days might work as a quarantine period. The way this would work is that while one is intensely focusing on a project or initiative, one should periodically scan other sources of information to search for new ideas. If a new idea is found either through this search or even inadvertently, the innovator could place it in a quarantine with a calendar reminder to revisit that idea in depth at some fixed period of time, so one maintains momentum on the current project but does not lose out on the potential value of the new idea.
The scourge of ancient walled cities was the siege, in which an enemy would surround a city, cut off all supplies, and try to starve the city’s residents into submission. For an attacker, laying siege to an enemy town was less hazardous than attempting a direct attack, especially against a city protected by high walls and other fortifications. The survival of defenders in the city depended on the quantity of resources they were able to store inside their defensive walls and their ability to outlast those who surrounded them. The city of Dubrovnik was particularly resilient when it came to its ability to survive a siege. Over the course of several hundred years, the city was only defeated once in a siege, in 1806, by the French Emperor Napoleon. In the 1991 Yugoslavian Civil War, the city was attacked by Serbian forces but held out for several months until it was rescued by advancing Croatian troops who broke the siege.
The resilience of Dubrovnik against sieges throughout history was due to three primary attributes. First, the city had an excellent supply of water, provided via underground aqueducts that flowed from the nearby mountains into the city and were difficult to cut off. Secondly, Dubrovnik had ready access to large supplies of salt in a natural formation that was only a few miles away and could be stockpiled inside the city walls in preparation for a siege. That salt was useful in curing fish, which was abundant in the coastal region and could provide protein for the city’s residents. A third attribute of the city that made it resilient was the existence of huge grain storage structures (in a building that today is called the Rupe Granary) that provided the appropriate temperature and humidity to allow the city to stockpile large amounts of grain over long periods of time. The granary had one upper level space that was had the right environmental conditions for drying the fresh grain, then the workers could easily move the grain through holes in the floor to another area that was well-suited for long-term storage.
Innovation Perspective – The resilience of Dubrovnik provides a mechanism by which one can measure the resilience of an innovation program using the same three attributes: water, salt, and grain. For the innovator, water represents the flow of new ideas into an innovation program. Although it is important to make progress on existing initiatives and programs, the lifeblood of an innovation effort is the flow of new ideas from outside the program. An innovator should keep metrics of how much time he or she devotes to focusing on new ideas and make sure that his or her innovation program is not stagnant and is bringing new approaches to its sponsors on a regular basis. Salt for the innovator represents what one does to manage day to day operations in the program in order to maintain progress on initiatives. Just as the residents of Dubrovnik would catch fresh fish and preserve their catch using salt, so, too, would an innovator undertake the work effort on current initiatives to make sure they progressed from idea to new product or service in a reasonable amount of time. Grain in long-term storage represents the history of the innovation program, providing a detailed roadmap of where one has been over time in the program and what ideas have received investment in the past. It is surprising how often innovators fail to track their history, believing that only new ideas are worth their time and focus. Sometimes an old idea can become valuable again because of a change in the marketplace or a new technology might appear that enables that old idea to function more effectively. Conversely, an idea that seems new may end up being very similar to something that the innovator tried and failed to achieve in the past. By having a strong, well-documented sense of the history of the program, the innovator can avoid repeating those mistakes.
The Orlando Column
The main promenade in Dubrovnik is known as the Stradun, a wide, stone pedestrian walkway that runs East to West through the center of the city from the Pila Gate to the Ploce Gate. This a charming street, full of sidewalk cafes, shops, and bars, is always full of people and serves as a hub for the entire town. At one end of the Stradun, near the Old Port where ships used to enter the city, there is a plaza in front of the Church of St. Blaise (named for St. Blaise, the patron Saint of Dubrovnik) that contains a small column built in 1419 adorned by the statue of a knight. This is the Orlando column, named after the Frenchman Roland (the spelling of his name was changed) who died in the service of the Emperor Charlemagne while fighting the Saracens in France. The column was part of a series of statues built around the region that signified cities under the protection of the Emperor, symbolizing freedom against nearby hostile powers.
What is most interesting about the statue is not its larger meaning in terms of sovereignty but, rather, its measurements. The forearm of Orlando in the statue represented a specific measurement used by merchants in the city – the Ragusan cubit. This length, which is 51.2 centimeters, was also shown by a single line carved into the base stone of the monument. Given its central location in the main square of the city and close to the port, this statue served the very pragmatic purpose of providing merchants in the city with an irrefutable means of measuring the products they wanted to trade in the city. A merchant could measure a piece of fabric against the forearm of Orlando or the line on the base of the column, and this would permit both buyer and seller to be confident in what they were purchasing.
Innovation Perspective – Innovators sometimes forget to focus on the importance of metrics. We may get carried away with a new idea or a potentially disruptive solution and may forget to focus on how we can measure whether such an innovation would be successful. The Orlando Column reminds us that at the foundation of all our work should be firm and fixed means of measurement. These measurements should be clearly visible to anyone involved in the project and, moreover, should be simple enough to understand that there can be no confusion about whether those metrics were achieved. Sometimes we may think that our new solution is so innovative that it defies simple measurement. That is rarely the case. We should always be able to explain our new ideas in a way that can translate into the cold, hard facts of business sales or operations.
The Rector’s Palace
In a city of beautiful buildings, many of which have a distinctive Venetian flavor, the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik stands out as an architectural gem. Similar to the stunning Doge’s Palace in Venice, the Rector’s Palace housed the city government in Dubrovnik for hundreds of years and was the seat of the Rector, who ruled over the city. The Rector’s Palace consisted of living quarters for the Rector as well as halls for city council meetings, an armory, a jail, a courthouse, and a powder magazine (which unfortunately exploded on two occasions). The terms by which the Rector performed his role were quite interesting. During his tenure, the Rector left his home and lived in the Palace continuously for one month at a time after being elected to the position, with the only excursions being to perform the duties of a statesman or other protocol-required functions. The Rector could not interact with family and friends during this period of seclusion in the Palace. The reason for this was to deter the Rector from engaging in graft or other types of nefarious activities that typically plagued politicians of the era. Likewise, the short duration of the tenure in the Palace also ensured that the Rector did not become overtaken by the power of his position. Above the doorway at the entrance to the Palace one can see the inscription “obliti privatorum publica curate,” which translates to “forget the private and worry about the public.”
Innovation Perspective – The one-month secluded sessions of the Rector remind me of the challenge faced by innovation practitioners in terms of how we interact with the larger organizations that surround us. An innovator must strike a balance between being deeply immersed in working on a solution while still following other events and happenings at the company. For example, an innovator participating in weekly status meetings for an organization might hear another department head talk about a specific challenge that department is facing, which may result in the need for more innovation work. Conversely, an innovator discussing the status of his or her program might trigger a thought on the part of another participant in the meeting concerning an alternative approach to the problem, or perhaps a similar problem that needs to be solved. The model of the Rector is an interesting one in terms of the duration it affords for the deep immersion in one’s work. With the set period of time defined in advance, an innovator can know exactly how long one can dive deeply into one’s work before one needs to maintain those external interactions that are important to the long-term success of the innovation program.
The Foundry (Gornji Ugao Tower)
In one of the corner towers of the walled city of Dubrovnik sits a 15th-century industrial facility that sat unused for many years until 2003 when a local historical foundation decided to undertake archaeological explorations in the area. The archaeologists found what was, in essence, a medieval factory and decided to convert it into a museum. The site was the location of a foundry used by the government of Dubrovnik to manufacture metal objects, especially weaponry such as cannonballs. By having this plant inside the city walls, Dubrovnik was able to further enhance its self-sufficiency. The factory sits in the Gornji Ugao Tower in the upper portion of the town and, interestingly, is located right where the aqueduct from the mountains first brings water into the city. The plant channels the water through a series of small pipes and canals to provide the water for manufacturing, using gravity to keep the water flowing from the upper levels of the factory to the lower levels.
One of the key ingredients in the process to manufacture metal objects in the foundry was volcanic casting sand, which was used to insulate and protect the stone casting molds for the metal objects. Since the volcanic sand could withstand the tremendous heat of the foundry’s molten metal, this material was critical to the successful operation of the facility. Unfortunately, the only known source of the volcanic sand at the time was from the region around Venice, which was not always on friendly terms with Dubrovnik. As such, the operators of the foundry had to find a way to maximize the efficiency of their use of this material since they had no way to ensure a reliable supply from their competitor, especially in the case of an external siege of the city. The designers of the foundry created a system in which as they used water to cool the casting molds in their factory, the water flowed through a series of channels and pools where the used volcanic sand would dissipate to the bottom of the tanks and could be captured and re-used for future casting work. This significantly reduced the amount of material they had to import.
Innovation Perspective – Just like writers, innovators can periodically suffer mental blocks in which they stare at a blank page, screen, or whiteboard while trying to come up with a new idea to solve a problem. While there are hundreds of recommended techniques for innovators to come up with new ideas, one of the approaches that seems to recur time and again is the basic notion of maximizing the use of scarce resources, often through recycling. In examining a problem, an innovator can use the technique of identifying components of a product or steps in a process in which scarcity comes into play. Where a resource is scarce, there is often opportunity to innovate because that scarcity usually means higher costs or a less efficient process (in that more work is required to move through that step in the process). A simple solution to the former problem (scarce materials) is to find a way to recycle the materials used so the product consumes less. A quick trick to solve the latter problem (an inefficient process) is to find another area of the process where excess work is used and determine if that effort could be applied to making the other portion of the process work better, such as having a human intervening in an automated process perform two tasks at the same time rather than intervening on two different occasions.
A recent example of the material scarcity situation comes from the Gaza Strip next to Israel, where a young Gazan entrepreneur invented a construction brick known as “Green Cake” that uses the rubble of destroyed building and waste ash from factories to create bricks internally in Gaza rather than having to import materials or completed bricks from the outside. This increases the self-sufficiency of the Gazan people and means jobs for their workers rather than relying on imports from other countries to sustain their construction industry. Another example comes from the United States in the form of the ubiquitous cream-filled snack cake known as the Twinkie. As relayed in a recent podcast from How Stuff Works, the inventor of the Twinkie got his inspiration from trying to figure out how to use idle machinery in a snack manufacturing facility. The company had a line of snack products that consisted of strawberry cakes with cream filling, but the expensive machines used to make the cakes and insert the cream filling sat idle during times when strawberries were out of season. The inventor decided to try to make a snack cake that was not dependent on strawberries to better use his machinery and came up with the twinkie. He thus replaced a scarce resource with something that was not scarce, resulting in the creation of a new, innovative product.
Up the coast from Dubrovnik, one finds the city of Split, the largest in Dalmatia. Split is known as a key transit point for ferries that ply the Adriatic Sea, visiting enchanting islands such as Hvar, Korcula (reputed birthplace of the ancient explorer Marco Polo), Brac, Krk, Mljet, Vis, and many others. Although Split possesses lovely beaches and a charming old town area, it is best known as the location of Diocletian’s Palace. The Roman Emperor Diocletian ruled from 284 to 305 A.D and because he was born in Dalmatia, he chose to return to that region at the end of his rule to construct an enormous waterfront palace that befit a ruler of a huge part of the ancient world. The palace was completed in 305 A.D. and consisted of his retirement home as well as large facilities for the troops who lived there to control the area and protect him. Today the footprint of the palace covers about half of the old city of Split, and various remnants of the palace remain, such as triumphal entry gates, walls, and a main courtyard area known as the Peristyle, consisting of enormous Egyptian-style stone columns and next to an even larger mausoleum built for the Emperor. Diocletian displayed several 3,500-year-old granite Sphinx statues from his stay in Egypt, and a couple of these statues remain on display in the city today.
While the portions of the palace that have survived over the centuries are quite spectacular, another interesting part of the palace is subterranean. When Roman engineers built the foundations for the palace, they dug deep underground and created an enormous substructure of stone and brick to provide support for the buildings at the ground level. Some of this basement area is open as a museum today, and one can see the extremely elegant yet sophisticated pillars and arches that were used. The Roman engineers were savvy enough to know that the lower part of their columns needed to be made out of stone while the upper portions were brick, which better controlled moisture in the damp basement.
As one walks around this basement area, with enormous arches and high ceilings, one sees a couple of sights that are puzzling. First, one sees several holes punched into the ceiling that are covered today with wire grates. The holes are at random locations, so they clearly were not part of the original design. Elsewhere in the basement, particularly at the sides where excavation has not taken place, one sees enormous piles of debris heaped up from floor to ceiling, maybe 30 or 40 feet high. These pieces of evidence provide clues as to what happened to this structure over the centuries. After Diocletian died and the Roman Empire collapsed, the Palace fell into disuse and the citizens of Split started taking advantage of the structure to build their homes right on top of the Palace’s original footprint. At some point around the 13th century A.D., a resident created a hole in the floor on the ground level and noticed a huge, dark, and empty space beneath his house. The resident decided that this space would be a convenient garbage dump and began to throw debris into the hole. Other residents followed suit and the result was that the basement of Diocletian’s palace became full of centuries of rubbish from residents of Split. While this has proved to be a treasure-trove of information for modern archaeologists who would go on to analyze the debris to determine how people lived over the centuries, it was a disturbing way to treat an architectural wonder.
Innovation Perspective – As I contemplated this amazing subterranean space and saw the various holes in the ceiling, I thought about how an innovator would approach this situation. One way to think about the role of the innovator is to put oneself in the position of a resident of the old town of Split after the fall of the Roman Empire and the decay of the palace. An innovator’s mindset, upon seeing that an enormous, dark cavern exists under his home in Split, would call for further examination of why this existed. Rather than tossing garbage into the void, the innovator would want to shine a light into the space and figure out exactly how large it is. The innovator would seek input from neighbors to determine if they, too, had this same phenomenon underneath their homes, and would try to determine the extent of the space. For example, the innovator could determine if people further away in other parts of the city also had a void below their homes, or if they simply dug to see solid ground. The innovator would ask questions, whereas a non-innovative mindset would simply want to use the space for a rubbish bin. Although the action of the latter could be deemed as innovative in the sense that it was a new idea about how to use a space, was efficient, and was economical, the true innovative mindset calls for a more investigative approach to problem-solving.
Just outside the city of Split one can see an architectural gem of a structure that is prevalent enough in Roman lore to almost be worthy of the term “ubiquitous.” This arched structure with a gentle downward slope is the Diocletian Aqueduct, built at the end of the 3rd century A.D. to bring water to Diocletian’s Palace on the coast from the inland Jadro River. By Roman measurements this aqueduct is not a grand one, stretching only 9 kilometers in length with a grade difference of 13 meters from start to finish. Other aqueducts in the region, such as the 40-kilometer-long structure supplying water to the city of Zadar, were much grander.
Innovation Perspective – An aqueduct itself, no matter how large or small, is a marvel of ancient engineering and precision. From an innovation standpoint, however, the lesson one learns from looking at an aqueduct is not from its structure but from the process that is required to build it. One can imagine serving as a water engineer at the time of Diocletian. Faced with the demand from the Emperor to provide bountiful water to his palace in a relatively dry region, one immediately begins the search for a nearby water supply. Sometimes this is easy, as was likely the case in Split where the bountiful Jadro River existed only 9 kilometers away. In other cases this may have been more be difficult, as an engineer would have to follow a small stream to look for the source, or scan different types of vegetation in search of hidden pockets of water.
The search for water reminds me of the search for innovation that we undertake on a regular basis as innovation practitioners. We go in search of a solution to a problem or a new idea, but sometimes we celebrate prematurely when we find that new idea, without realizing that the more difficult work lies ahead of us. Like the water engineer who finds the water source then has to figure out how to get it back to the city, an innovator finding a new idea is faced with the challenge of how to translate that new thinking into a new product or service, or a process change, or other transformation for one’s organization or client. It may in fact be more difficult to perform this latter portion of the process than it is to find the new idea.
The science of engineering an aqueduct requires a level of precision that we do not often associate with ancient civilizations. In the 5th century BC at the desert city of Petra in Jordan, the Nabatean civilization built a small water pipeline out of clay to supply the precious substance to their parched city from a nearby spring. Modern engineers examining the remains of the clay piping system found that if the slope of the pipeline were one degree more upright the water would not flow, but if it were one degree steeper the water would run too quickly and would scour the clay pipes and cause a rupture. The hard work, indeed, is not just finding the water but getting it to the end destination.
Traveling north from Dalmatia, one enters the Croatian region of Istria. As the Adriatic coastline curves towards the northwest, the influences of Italian culture become more apparent, even as the scenery remains splendid, with the deep blue sea meeting the light-colored rocks of the shoreline. One of the major cities in Istria is Pula, which is home to perhaps the best-preserved Roman amphitheater in the world. One can see the high walls of the amphitheater and get a feel for the size and grandeur of the arena. Below the surface of the arena are many tunnels and rooms that were used by the gladiators and other combatants in the arena. Archaeologists have found buried in these ruins a huge collection of Roman amphorae, or large clay pots used to transport liquids (mostly wine). The shape of the amphorae is quite interesting. One would expect a cylinder used to transport liquid to have a flat bottom so it could stand up while being stored, but every amphorae found beneath the arena (and elsewhere at other Roman archaeological sites) has a pointed base, so clearly the cylinder could not stand on its own. The amphorae also have handles at the very top of the cylinder, near the rim, as opposed to in the middle of the object as is the case with most modern items we carry with a handle. The end result is an object that looks ill-suited for its purposes, but we know that these were used successfully for hundreds of years for transporting liquids and, clearly, they must be built well because we can still find them intact today, over two thousand years later.
Innovation Perspective – The design of the Roman amphorae represents the type of choice that a modern innovator faces when developing a new product. An innovator is faced with multiple problems to solve in a design, but often has to choose which problems to solve. If one tries to solve every problem in a single design for a new product, the amount of time and money spent on the solution may prove to be unsustainable. Conversely, if one chooses to solve only one problem, then one ends up with an inferior product. The Roman amphorae represent an interest compromise on the part of the engineer who originally designed them. The amphorae have a pointed base because the most lengthy and dangerous part of the voyage of these objects was at sea. In a ship’s hold, the amphorae were packed in sand and the pointed base allowed the workers to push these containers deep into the sand where they were cushioned against each other and would not fall over during long and rough voyages. Since the sand was needed as ballast for the ship anyways, this allowed the Romans to accomplish two objectives at the same time.
In addition, the pointed base enabled the potter making the clay container to create a tight seal so the liquid would not spill out of any seams that might exist between the side of the container and the base (if the container had a flat base). Moreover, a flat base would need to be perfectly flat so the container would no fall over, whereas a pointed base did not require the same level of precision since it would be held up in racks or leaned against walls when stored on land. Another advantage of the pointed base was in the handling of the container by workers. Using the handles at the top of the container for one hand, a worker could place his or her other hand at the base of the cylinder and carry it relatively easily at a 45-degree angle, with the pointed base serving as a de facto extra handle. With a flat bottom, this would not have been possible. Given the large size of these amphorae and the fact that they were filled with liquid, ease of handling was an important consideration.
The engineer who developed the amphorae design may have reviewed the list of requirements for the container and prioritized the design based on those that were most pressing (maritime transportation and handling by workers) as opposed to those that were less important (ability to stand up without assistance on the land). This serves as a reminder to the modern innovator that one does not have to solve every problem to build something that is truly innovative.
The Kazun House
The soil in the region of Istria is quite rocky, and as one passes farmland in the area it appears that some of the agricultural fields are better suited to produce small rocks than any crops. This has been a problem for farmers in the region for centuries, and before engaging in any type of agricultural work a farmer must clear his or her fields of these rocks. Some are used for fencing to delineate property lines, but another interesting use for rocks is the Kazun House. The Kazun Houses are small structures made entirely of loose stones with no mortar or other substance holding them together. They are round at the base and have a curved dome roof that slopes inward to a point at the top, with a small entrance portal left in the side for the farmer to enter. The dome roof appears to be suspended by some magical force because one can see no frame or other means of support holding it up. The entire structure is held together by the friction between the irregularly-shaped rocks that push against each other to counteract the force of gravity that is trying to being the structure down. In the Vodnjan region of Istria, there are nearly 3,000 Kazun houses and were used by farmers to provide relief from the wind and sun in the fields or to store tools and other farming implements.
Innovation Perspective – Although the reuse of waste material (rocks in fields) is an important innovation of the Kazun House, the design is even more amazing. Dry stone building, a construction technique in which one stone after another is placed on top of each other with no mortar in between, reflects the challenge of the farmers of the region in terms of building structures without readily available building materials. The farmers were able to do this because they made an innovative decision – they chose to remove a typical requirement from their design that would have required them to build in a different manner. That requirement was the ability for a structure to resist water. In a Kazun House, one can see numerous gaps in the ceiling through which water would flow in a rainstorm. Yet the amount of work and material that would have been required to create a waterproof structure was likely beyond the means of these farmers, who would only invest such time, energy, and resources into their actual living quarters, which were located away from the fields. The Kazun Houses were remote, located next to agricultural fields, and allowed the farmer to store tools and escape from the sun and wind without having to return all the way to a barn or one’s home. By removing a key requirement that seemed to be a fundamental component of a structure, the innovative farmer was able to build something that was practical and useful in the form of the Kazun House.
Learning from Disasters
A common theme I witnessed throughout the Balkan region was the importance of societal resilience and making the most of tragic or unfortunate situations. This appeared in almost every country in the region in various forms:
-Dubrovnik was struck by a major earthquake in 1667, with widespread destruction across the town. After the earthquake, the city leaders decided to change zoning ordinances to remove bridges across alleyways (only a couple survived and no new ones were built, so they are a rarity in modern Dubrovnik), the main East to West street in the town (the Strudun) was rebuilt with common architectural facades (so an not to promote envy or competition among neighbors), resulting in the amazingly consistent streetscape of the city today.
-In Zagreb a major fire swept through the city in 1731 and one area that is known as the Stone Gate suffered tremendous damage. As residents were cleaning up the debris, they noticed that a painting of the Virgin Mary with Jesus had miraculously survived the fire completely intact, and residents deemed this a miracle and made the Stone Gate into a shrine. Zagreb residents now come to this site to pray and make wishes for good fortune. One can see on the walls of the Stone Gate many plaques brought by residents signifying wishes they made that eventually came true, and the plaques signify their thanks for the fulfillment of their wishes.
-The Istrian city of Porec suffered intense bombing by the Allies during World War II, as the troops sought to dislodge Nazi forces who were operating in the area. Given the lack of precision bombing in World War II and the fact that the Nazis were holed up in churches, many of these ancient buildings suffered tremendous damage. However, one of the most famous mosaics in the region, depicting the myth of the Punishment of Dirce, was uncovered beneath an old church as a result of the bombing, as was an ancient Mausoleum nearby. These might have never been found had the bombing not taken place.
A great example of this resilience in the face of disaster appears in the Istrian city of Rovinj at the Church of St. Euphemia. Residents of Rovinj often strain their necks to see the statue of St Euphemia at the top of the church’s bell tower. Since the statue is a weathervane, the direction it is facing can tell residents whether a storm may be blowing in from the sea or if they can expect continued sunny weather. The statue of St. Euphemia is interesting because the saint is depicted holding a wheel in her hand. At first glance, one might think that this is a nautical image, such as a ship captain’s wheel for a seafaring town. However, the wheel is much more terrestrial. In 304 A.D., a young Euphemia was captured by Diocletian’s Roman soldiers who tried to force her to give up her Christian faith. She refused and was tortured on a wheel then thrown to lions. The lions killed her but did not eat her remains, thus initiating her path to sainthood, along with a legend of a stone casket washing up on the shoreline of Rovinj containing her remains, which were moved to the church. The wheel on the statue of St. Euphemia shows how she was tortured by the Romans, and we see this elsewhere in the statuary of martyred Christians, such as St. John’s Basilica in Trogir where a statue of the saint above the entrance holds a grill grate to signify his martyrdom by fire at the hands of the Romans.
Innovation Perspective –Although our work as innovators is much less macabre than the lives of the saints, the idea of associating imagery with challenging events could be a way for innovators to remind themselves and their teams of the importance of learning from failure. Rather than trying to forget a project that did not go well and avoiding mention of it at all costs, an innovator could place a logo or other symbol from that project in a prominent place to serve as a reminder to the team that it is possible to fail but that failure in innovation will not be treated in the same way it might be in other corporate endeavors. When one is pushing the envelope with a new technology or unproved idea, failure is always a possibility and, while not encouraged, should not be shunned completely. An innovator should absorb the lessons of failure to avoid repeating the same mistakes in a new project.
Photographs courtesy of the author except as noted below.
Sarajevo War Tunnel Photograph by Baumi [GFDL (https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons
Diocletian Aqueduct photograph by SchiDD [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
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Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.
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