The Simpsons' Monorail and innovation
The twelfth episode of The Simpsons' fourth season, called Marge vs. the Monorail is maybe one of my favorite episode and is definitely a great lesson in design. And this, not only in the conception of public transport, but also in terms of innovation as a whole. This episode focuses around the town of Springfield buying a monorail from a Lyle Lanley after earning lot of money, and instead of fixing more urgent problems like cracks on the streets. Only Marge seems to dislike the purchase but everyone in town seems to succumb to the glossy value of the Monorail. After a quick training, Homer happens to be the monorail driver. At first things run okay, but then some malfunction occur and the monorail accelerates dangerously. It's eventually stopped by Homer who launched an anchor on a big donut.
What does that say about design/innovation?
First, it's an interesting example of how a group of people puts lots of money in some sort of crazy things utterly cool that is not the most necessarily need of a community. When Marge tells Bart "Main Street's still all cracked and broken", he replies with the wisdom of the crowd motto: "Sorry, mom, the mob has spoken... Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!". As if the street, as a means of mobility, was boring, old-fashion and useless compared to the shiny representation of the future depicted by the monorail. What's funny is that even Lisa is fooled by the salesman when she tells him that such a transportation system would be useless in a low-density town such as Springfield. The promise of the value of a futuristic device such as the monorail is almost unquestionable (ah... progress), based on the common sense of the group.
Second, and surely a corollary, it also shows (and criticizes) how social pressure is important in the diffusion and acceptability of an innovation. "Ah it's not for you, it's more of a shelbyville idea" or"I've sold monorails to Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum, it put them on the map!" says the salesman showing a map of the US with only these cities on the map. To some extent, it follows innovation researcher from the 19th century Gabriel Tarde's laws of imitation: innovation are adopted faster when they have already been accepted elsewhere.
Why do I blog this? preparing material for a course, looking for interesting examples of failures. Reminds me of some innovations-who-became fads right? Of course every fad are not always comparable to the "springfield monorail" (scholars would say "isomorphic") but there are some good points in that episode.
People interested in the diffusion of innovation can find perfect exemplifications here:
- The monorail as the invention
- Springfield's inhabitants as the social structure. As usual when they have to decide municipal decisions, they gather in the townhall, under the guidance of Joe Quimby (the mayor), showing a very swiss landsgemeinde way of making decisions. Innovation researchers who employ the term "authority-collective decision" to describe how this choice to buy and build a monorail is made.
- Lyle Lanley, the salesman, as the change agent external to the system
- Lisa and then Marge as people who are part of the social system but who have doubts.
- The monorail value proposition is the one of an innovation: faster than other means of transport, more sexy, complex and launched with the help of a VIP: Leonard Nemoy from Star Trek.
Of course, it does not depict the whole innovation diffusion, only the recurring failure of the monorail (based on different iterations) and how the salesmen made money out of it.