I wrote recently about innovation lessons from the Roman Empire (SPQR Innovation) and in the course of my travels and research, I have uncovered additional Roman examples that are worth investigating. I also would like to share an insight that occurred to me concerning a characteristic of tourism and how it relates to the challenges faced by innovation practitioners.
Roman Maritime Concrete
The first Roman example appeared in a local paper and has ties to a local university where I live, so I assume that this information has not reached a broader audience. As I mentioned in my previous article, the Roman Empire spanned hundreds of years and left a lasting imprint on the planet. One can see ancient Roman ruins all around the Mediterranean even today, with some ruins in such great shape that it is possible to imagine oneself actually walking down a Roman road. Although it makes sense that land-based structures have survived over the ages, particularly in dry climates, one puzzle that has perplexed researchers is how Roman maritime edifices have proven almost equally viable over centuries.
University of Utah Research Associate Professor of Geology & Geophysics, Marie D. Jackson, wondered how numerous Roman piers, breakwaters, and seawalls have withstood exposure to the harsh ocean climate for thousands of years. This contrasts with modern concrete, which typically deteriorates after just a few decades when exposed to seawater. Jackson recently discovered that the Romans achieved their success in maritime construction through the use of a certain type of volcanic ash in their ocean concrete. She observes that the Roman mixture of volcanic ash and lime becomes stronger when exposed to seawater, as the saltwater “partially dissolves the ash and lime cocktail and new interlocking crystals and minerals form, preventing cracks and making the structures stronger.”
In other words, the ancient Romans found a way to make their maritime concrete stronger by adding a material to the mix that behaves differently in seawater than it would in dry air. The results can be seen today in many seaside locations in the Mediterranean, and Professor Jackson is leading a team that is trying to re-create the exact formula used by the Romans for use by modern concrete makers.
The second example of building to last comes at the site of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, located near Meknes, Morocco. Volubilis was the westernmost city of the Roman Empire, and is situated in a fertile valley about 100 miles from the Atlantic Coast. The city was occupied by the Romans from 44 AD to 285 AD, and its prosperity derived from nearby olive trees and other agricultural products. Several families built large homes in the city, and the most remarkable remnants of these homes are a series of large floor mosaics that were decorative elements of these fine homes. Excavated by the French in the late 1800s and protected today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stepping into the scattered remains of Volubilis can transport the visitor back to Roman times.
The floor mosaics are extremely well-preserved, which is partly due to the nature of their construction. Unlike tile, which is colored via enamel paint, mosaics are made using naturally-colored stone. In other words, when a mosaic artist needs to add a certain color to his or her work of art, he or she has to find a rock that occurs in nature with that exact color.
As a result, mosaics tend to have a limited range of colors, but they are also exceptionally durable. Just as a rock sitting in a field can reside in that location for thousands of years, so, too, can a mosaic withstand the test of time.
Indeed, many of the mosaics today at Volubilis are in incredibly good shape, given that they have been either covered in dirt or sitting out in the sun for hundreds of years. The persistence of the Roman mosaics, which one finds throughout the locations occupied by the Romans during their centuries of rule (in present-day Italy, Jordan, Israel, and elsewhere), reminds us that by using the right techniques (colored stone instead of paint), one can create something that will last for generations.
Think Like a Tourist to Innovate
I spend a great deal of time traveling and generally feel as though I am highly aware of how I am interacting with my surroundings yet something occurred to me recently as I had the tables turned and was able to view travel from a different perspective. I live permanently in a place where other people tend to go on their vacations, and on a hike the other day I was struck by the fact that people had stopped to take a picture and absorb a panoramic view that I passed by every day without notice. When I first moved here to the Wasatch Mountains in northern Utah, I was struck by the beauty of the distant mountains on each and every hike, noticing different colors in the sky depending on the time of day or enjoying the flora and fauna, and sometimes the whiteness and silence of deep snowfall.
While I still appreciate these things from time to time, I do not notice them nearly as much as I used to on my hikes. As I pondered the tourists taking photographs as I walked by, I was transported mentally to the souks (marketplaces) of Morocco where I realized that I was the same tourist taking photos of the amazing array of spices or other goods from around the world, while locals standing nearby were wondering why such a view was worth capturing, since it was so commonplace to them.
The realization that struck me is that the innovator needs to look at the world as both the tourist and the local, leveraging insights from each one, in order to be successful in developing new ideas about solving problems.
The innovator needs to be like a local in order to recognize the foundational elements and details of a particular topic. For example, the locals at the souk would know each and every nearby shopkeeper, which ones had the best products, what prices were good, who was away at prayer (indicated by a metal rod drawn across the shop entrance), what time of day it was (based on the flow of traffic), and who was passing by the area.
On a hike, I know the time of day, the weather relative to how it normally is at that time of year, whether storms are brewing in the distant mountains, how windy it is versus normal, the humidity, how much foot, bike, and animal traffic has been on the trail recently, the haziness of the horizon based on air quality or nearby wildfires, the shapes of the clouds indicating high pressure dominating the region, how dense the foliage is growing, the appearance of wildflowers, where deer or elk or even moose might appear, and where I will see bikes pass by or where I will hike in relative solitude. These are the types of detailed observations made by a local.
From a tourist’s standpoint, the experience is completely new, and he or she will often see things that the local will miss, such as the contrast of colors in a scene, a scent that the local ignores because it is always there, or even a distant noise that the local chooses to ignore because it is so repetitive. The tourist looks at each scene with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder that eludes the local. The challenge for the innovator is to figure out how to combine the two when trying to solve a problem. The innovator needs to dive deeply enough into researching the problem so that he or she understands all the intricacies of the challenge (so as not to come up with a potential solution that is a false positive), while simultaneously looking at the problem with a clear enough mind so as not to miss obvious potential solutions that can be generated through considering the problem with a fresh perspective.
My recommendation for innovators is to make sure you are wearing both hats the next time you are diving into a problem, and to remember to step back on a regular basis and look at the problem with a fresh set of eyes, just like a tourist in a new land.
images courtesy of the author
Rich Kane, “Researcher Discovers Why Roman Concrete Structure Are So Durable,” Salt Lake Tribune (July 9, 2017), p. B7.
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden