I’ve spoken to many in the rowing community – from Olympic legends and Henley Stewards, through to juniors who were competing for the first time. And one thing has struck me – innovation is driven by everyday people wanting to create change in their lives.

Those who have read some of my articles and my work in blade design understand that I am seeking to understand the dynamics of innovation in rowing.

It is in no way straightforward – what is the process of successful innovations and what relegates some to the history books?

As a designer, when I think about change and innovation, it is associated with progressing a concept to improve the performance of existing equipment.

This was a point that Maria Brandin made during my interview with her. Maria is the five times winner of the Princess Royal Challenge Cup, 1995 World Champion and was at Henley on the Saturday for a Luncheon exhibition row.

Brandin expressed to me her frustration that design innovation has not created the improvements that it should have. She said that the world best time for the women’s single scull is still standing even after twenty years, despite all of the modern technical innovations that we have seen in recent years.

She said: “I think they should try harder.”

Designers need to be working to bring innovation to our sport.

I have come to see that innovation adoption is more about cultural change than the efficacy of the design itself. This was what I was hearing along the towpath – people were reflecting on their own experiences of participating in a sport that sees innovation and change from a community perspective, not so much about new designs, more about opening up our sport to include those who were once on the outside.

I have come to see that innovation adoption is more about cultural change than the efficacy of the design itself

Rowing is an activity that belongs to us all. Walking the towpath each day of the regatta made me realise that innovation and change is actually about people’s lives, their hopes, failures and achievements. Innovation is about seeing the possibilities and taking the steps to be that change. More times than not, innovation involves taking a huge risk, speaking out, out of turn, out of place, trying something new, untested, unorthodox.

It can be lonely but those who dare are often rewarded. Innovation in our sport is not about tired, established companies and businesses delivering their next products but everyday people wanting to create change in their lives. 

The sport of rowing was changing right before our eyes, and we just had to pay attention. I cut together around 180 interviews into six 30-minute episodes that have now been published on Spotify through the End of the Island podcast with JRN. The beauty of the recorded interview is the raw honesty and immediacy of participants and I believe that my interviews represent a significant moment in our history.

On one level, the greatest innovation is Henley’s ability to remain relevant and viable throughout both the industrial and information revolutions. 

In rowing, on one hand, Henley is a paradox in that it has conserved its most archaic traditions. On another, it is the place where our sport is being transformed and where all the latest innovations are tested. What we need to keep in mind is that it is at Henley where innovations historically have taken place. Henley predates the Modern Olympics and all of the modern innovations were tested here at Henley.

My own innovation, the Randall foil, was first certified by the Henley Stewards, the year before FISA, and was first used at the World Championships in 2019. Henley was the place where sliding seats, sliding riggers, drone coverage, and telemetry were first used. 

It is here, at Henley, that innovation is taking place – driven by everyday people and seeking to push boundaries.

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