Get Chief Innovator
Delivered To Your Inbox.

As Fit As Steel: Disruptive Social Innovation in Istanbul

Steel: Nothing new under the sun?

Steel has been around for 5,000 years. For centuries, it has been used to produce weapons and simple tools. Making one good sword took generations of experience, skill and a lot of sweat.

Three hundred years ago, industrial scale production began and ever since steel has been the backbone of human civilization.

In spite of many new materials on the market, steel is still the backbone of modern life from skyscrapers to cell phones and cars to city infrastructures.

What started in workshops with small coal furnaces turned into a worldwide industry with huge blast furnaces and integrated factories each employing tens of thousands of employees. There are countless mills manufacturing steel products worldwide, from the exterior of your refrigerator to your kitchenware. Demand is high—and so is supply and competition: Global production hit a record of 1.55 billion tonnes last year. Companies big enough to afford it keep investing in R&D work to improve the quality, durability and production efficiency … and that is not easy. High capital and operating costs, difficulty of production, complexity of global supply chain and logistics, and low margins continuously drive manufacturers towards consolidation.

The humble steel pipe: critically important for modern life

When I ask outsiders to the industry what they think is the most important steel product in modern life, few name the steel pipe. Yet it is everywhere. Steel pipes are the nervous system of a city, transporting fluids and gases through millions of miles of pipelines. They are in the chassis of your car. They are in your umbrella and are used to make the handle of your refrigerator. Even the needle of a syringe is a steel pipe.

Despite this high specialization and very much like any other steel product, the steel pipe market is highly commoditized and characterized by huge investments, considerable risks, complex processes and low margins.

So, when it comes to the steel pipe, there’s surely nothing to innovate, right? Most of the end users are not even aware of the presence of steel pipes in their products. Plus, it is merely a hollow section with water passing through and like any other commodity, its price is set by the market.

Question: Do you exercise?

No, I am not kidding, for two reasons. First, at BMGI we believe that physical and mental fitness go hand in hand. And we encourage our employees and customers to stay fit. Second, breakthrough has often been achieved where the predominant thinking was surrounded by constraints. Research has shown that a random stimulus can help us break free from those—in retrospect—often merely mental constraints. So let’s use “fitness” as a random stimulus to generate novelty for the core product of the steel industry.

The fitness industry: Nothing new under the sun?

The fitness industry has been around for a while and it’s a considerable business. If you want to incorporate exercising into your life and you go over your options, it looks like you have to spend some money to keep fit—at least if you live in a place as crowded as Istanbul. Gym memberships, DVDs, group exercises, mobile apps, etc. As a result, large parts of the population are excluded from something as essential for well-being as fitness.

Here is a surprising similarity between steel and the fitness business: fierce competition and low margins! Low margins in the steel business isn’t a surprise, but you wouldn’t have guessed it when you walk into that fancy fitness club with $3,000 annual fees, would you? A typical fitness club has very high capital costs and huge operating costs on top of that. You may think membership fees are high, but it’s barely enough to run the operation.

This is especially true in Turkey, where fitness awareness has started to grow recently, but very slowly. The typical customer base seems to be limited to those who have a certain income, who are within a certain age range, who can drive to or easily access a nearby facility, and who understand the importance of exercising for their overall quality of life.

On top of economic barriers to entry, many people simply don’t seem to like the atmosphere in gyms, which are designed for the young, the rich and the good-looking, who often are dead serious about a “six-pack” or “a sexy bum.”

Scrap steel pipe + feeling at ease = fitness for all

A couple of years ago, people started to notice a new kind of equipment set in the parks of Istanbul. Not your usual swing or seesaw, but fitness equipment. Simple and ergonomically well-designed the equipment does the job: bench presses, leg presses, chin-up bars or crunch tables. The equipment is mostly produced using, yes, you got it: steel pipes.

It looks like that’s what people have been waiting for. People who you would never imagine exercising before have become fitness addicts now. Instead of watching morning shows on the TV, local housewives (and not so desperate) are out there every day, sweating and smiling. The concept took off so quickly that you see these fitness parks almost everywhere now, countrywide.

The Job to be Done was always there: keep my body in good physical shape. But there is more to it than just this functional job to be done and the associated outcome expectations (minimize cost, provide easy access, etc.) that need to be fulfilled.

Doctors, the media, our friends or employers tell us every single day that we must exercise, period! But what if you have two toddlers and only 30 minutes of free time a day? What if you cannot pay $2,000 a year for a gym membership? What if you don’t have a car, or you always get stuck in any of our city’s traffic jams? These are important expectations, indeed, that any solution for personal fitness would need to meet. But these aspects alone don’t explain the massive use of the steel fitness parks in our city.

Observing and talking to people you come to understand that there are adjacent emotional and social jobs people get done while exercising in the park: “I feel at ease when I exercise. I can exercise the way I am. I can stay with my kids while I am exercising. It’s like a playground—and I get fit”.

One of the most interesting observations is that women use the equipment as a free social club at the same time. They usually walk to the facility in pairs or groups, and they exercise and chat at the same time. It is obvious that they are having a lot of fun doing that, which is the eternal question of the fitness industry: “How do we make sweating fun?” So here you go: Have people get a social job done at the same time, in a relaxing outdoor environment.

Win-win for supplier and consumer

Interestingly, the model is successful when you look from the supplier’s side also. The material used is either of the cheapest grade or scrap pipe that can be procured at low cost, transformed easily into the end product and offered to the customers (municipalities, construction companies, schools, restaurants, private companies) at an affordable price. Especially in the beginning, this market was a nice “blue ocean,” with very little competition.

Can you copy-paste the approach?

Could the Istanbul model to affordable public fitness be copied elsewhere? With all the observations and studies of local culture and people’s needs that went into the design of these parks—at BMGI we would call that “ethnographic research” —one would first need to understand how people live and socialize elsewhere.

So how do you find out what the “outcome expectations” are of people in your city when they try to get the job done of “maintaining a physically fit body”? This can be achieved through innovation tools, such as Job To Be Done, Outcome Expectations, ethnography—and many others.