Several times a day I see a train go by the river. Most carry freight, in countless cars, each containing more goods than ten trucks. Over 28% of U.S. freight is transported by rail. We don’t pay much attention to trains – unless we are stuck at a railroad crossing. But the history of railroads offers important lessons on solving one of the hardest innovation challenges: how to scale.

Trains travel across tracks. Original railroad companies defended their market by making their track widths distinct from competitors. It made transporting goods and people more difficult, requiring a lot of transfers from one train to another. The transcontinental railroad forced a standardization in tracks, and in turn created a transportation platform that shrunk travel across the U.S. from 25 days to four days. It also allowed heavy goods like steel and machines to move across the country, turbo-charging industrial growth and prosperity.

Platforms serve or enable other products or services. You can think of it as plumbing, the electrical grid, or railroad tracks. But it is most talked about as part of digital products and businesses. The Windows operating system, the internet, and cloud computing are great examples. To create scale innovators will need to invest in infrastructure, not just their product. When a Wall Street Journal reporter recently traveled with an electric car from New Orleans to Chicago, she spent more time charging (and looking for charging stations) than sleeping. EVs have yet to reach their transcontinental railroad milestone.

Emerging technologies are often a critical ingredient for platforms. Take blockchain, a unique digital tracking protocol that records transaction details on a ‘chain.’ While its most talked about application is cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, the uses for blockchain go much further. For example, it supports tracking produce from farm to table. A similar application helps track the path of physical goods from factory to retail store, helping manufacturers address gray markets for their products. 

One of the most inspiring segments at Signal 2022 was the story of 80 Acres Farms, a Cincinnati based vertical farming company revolutionizing the production and supply of fresh produce. They also had a scale problem. It took breakthrough collaboration with expert companies to create reliable and scalable technology. This is now available to others through Infinite Acres, a spinoff ‘platform’ company. It will scale adoption of vertical farming across the globe at a speed that would have been impossible for 80 Acres Farms alone.

Even employee well-being programs benefit from a platform approach. P&G’s Vibrant Living program serves as a platform that continually adapts to the evolving needs and interests of its employees. It not only brings in external products and services but also passionate, multi-talented employees to contribute, including R&D scientist and Zen master Annie Weisbrod. She has taught meditation to over 5,000 of her colleagues around the world.

To stay relevant in a rapidly evolving world, platforms need to adapt. To compete with airlines, European railroad systems introduced high-speed trains for long distance travelers. Digital platforms require an even greater agility. Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) is a premier example of a digital ‘platform’ business that is constantly adjusting to stay relevant. In her Signal 2022 interview Meta’s Nicola Mendelsohn shares how the company is not only adapting to new technology opportunities but also the unintended effects of an open platform.

Innovation is more than invention. It also requires laying the tracks for scaled growth. Next time you see a train, let it be an inspiration for your innovation journey.

Stan Joosten & John Battelle,
Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G