Tag Archives: innovation

File Under: We Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet…

A business school colleague of mine recently drew my attention to an article predicting how our lives will change in the next twenty years.

The changes that are predicted are all consequences of technology–mostly existing technology– and they are entirely plausible. If even half of them come to pass, however, we are likely to experience an economic and social upheaval that will far surpass the dislocations of the industrial revolution.

A few of those predictions:

  • Software will disrupt most traditional industries within the next 5-10 years. (We already see this with retailing.)
  •  Online legal advice (already widely available on the internet) will reduce the number of lawyers by 90%–only specialists will remain.
  • Self driving cars will be available in 2018;  by 2020, the entire auto industry will begin to be disrupted. People won’t own personal vehicles; they’ll call a car on the phone, it will show up and drive to the specified destination. (“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car.”) The implications are enormous: fewer accidents will reduce the need for insurance–and the companies that sell it; many car companies will go bankrupt, millions of jobs (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.) will disappear. Land used for parking will be redeveloped. There’s much more.
  • Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: We will see the true impact of solar production, which has “been on an exponential curve for 30 years.”
  • Companies will introduce a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan and your blood sample and analyzes your breath.  It will then analyze 54 biomarkers that identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive enough to give everyone on the planet access to world-class medical analysis, nearly for free.
  • 3D printing will be ubiquitous. The price of the cheapest 3D printer went from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and over that same timeframe it became 100 times faster. Major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes; spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports, and the space station now has a printer that eliminates the need to stockpile large amount of spare parts as before. The Chinese have already 3D printed/built a 6-story office building.  By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

These are just a few of the changes the article lists–there are many more.

It is difficult to envision the combined impact of these technologies; the author predicts that 70-80% of today’s jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be new ones, of course, but it is unlikely that there will be enough new jobs to replace those going the way of the dinosaurs.

During my own lifetime, the pace of change has steadily accelerated. Much of the social and economic dysfunction we are currently experiencing is a direct outgrowth of that change–not just the economic stresses involved, but the disorientation people suffer as cultural attitudes shift and expectations about their future lives are upended.

If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face. How will ideologues like Paul Ryan and those like him–lawmakers who think unemployed folks can just “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”– react to massive joblessness? What about the “alt-right” bigots who justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric with the claim that the newcomers are taking American jobs? What will those on the left do when they can no longer blame job losses on outsourcing and trade? Where will all these culture warriors turn without their overly-simplified, convenient culprits? And who will they turn on?

And a far, far more important question: how will the fortunate remnant–the still-employed, highly skilled specialists–respond to the needs of the suddenly un- and under-employed? What policy interventions will they support? What sort of social contract will they recognize?

Twenty years isn’t a long time. It’s practically tomorrow.

I Guess This Doesn’t Include Indiana

Macleans has identified cities it dubs a “new brain belt.”

These are the places where they think the greatest innovation is happening today. Sometimes they are classic rust-belt cities but mostly they are university or hospital towns in the vicinity: Waterloo, Ont., instead of Windsor.

They identify characteristics of such places: high-tech facilities, quality educational institutions, taxpayer support for research, appealing living conditions and, most important for them, cultures of free thinking, in contrast to the “hierarchical, regimented thinking so prevalent in Asian and MIST [Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey] countries.”

Or states like Indiana.

We have had several robust discussions on this blog about my theory of “paradigm shift.” Call it that, or focus on the narrower question (posed by MacLeans) whether your own city or state is “innovative” or “future oriented”–the question is one with which every Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development organization is wrestling: how does my city/ metropolitan area/state continue to compete and thrive in a world that is constantly changing? How do we get from here (wherever that is) to there (wherever that is)?

I was struck by the list of characteristics identified by MacLeans: of the five, four focused on human capital–more precisely, the development of an intellectual culture.

  • High tech facilities are built in places having workforces that can operate and manage them, places where both technical skills and comfort with technical innovation are plentiful.
  • The phrase “quality educational institutions” suggests the sort of yeasty and challenging environment that deals in questions, not answers–the sort of educational environment that produces new ideas and new ways of thinking about the traditional ones. (Quality is not defined by job placement statistics–sorry, Indiana Commission on Higher Education.)
  • “Taxpayer support for research” certainly doesn’t call to mind the penny-pinching, “I’ve got mine, Jack, and I’m holding onto it” attitude that has long characterized my own state of Indiana. It certainly doesn’t describe a state that would constitutionalize a cap on property taxes, lest those taxes somehow get raised and then–horrors!–spent on a common civic good like education. Or a better quality of life.
  • When you think about it, a culture of “free thinking”–the fourth intellectual attribute of forward-looking places–really leads to the only characteristic listed that doesn’t immediately connect to the life of the mind: a good quality of life. I don’t think you can have a good quality of life without such a “free thinking” culture.

People who enjoy engaging with ideas, with the arts, with people unlike themselves–people interested not only in acquiring new skills but in using those skills to improve their communities–are people who understand the organic nature and human importance of those communities, and the importance of their own connections to them.

There are people in my city–and I’d wager in yours–who are working hard to create a community that looks like that.

But at this point, my city– and most definitely my state— have a long way to go.

Ingenuity, Technology and Paranoia

We live in a patchwork quilt of new and old.

Here in Indiana, the dim bulbs in our legislature are busy fighting old constitutional wars and introducing measures to protect us against non-existent threats.  Let teachers impose prayer in schools! Make them teach religious beliefs in science classrooms! Protect Indiana from the existential threat posed by “Agenda 21”! (The latter is a reference to a decades-old, utterly toothless pro-environmental UN resolution that the paranoid are convinced will destroy American sovereignty and perhaps, Strangelove-like, sap our “manly juices.” Or something.)

Meanwhile, in precincts less terrified of reality and the future, innovative ideas are making urban life more convenient. We just returned from New York and a visit to the son who lives there, and once again were impressed by how livable the Bloomberg administration is making the Big Apple. Of course, as Bloomberg noted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers pay high taxes and thus have a right to expect good service for their money.

It isn’t only municipal services that are making New Yorkers’ lives more convenient, of course. Technology and the clever use of ubiquitous cell-phones have given rise to new services that we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. While we were in the city, we made use of one of them, called Uber.

Those of you who are familiar with Manhattan know that taxis are everywhere–at least, when it isn’t raining. Outside Manhattan, however–in parts of Queens and Brooklyn, for example–the familiar yellow cabs are far rarer. People living in those boroughs have access to the subway and to bus service (unlike the situation in Indy), but they don’t have the added option of raising an arm and hailing a cab.

Enter Uber.

Uber is a service that allows you to order a car easily. But it is much more than that. You download an app. Should you need a car, you enter your location and your desired destination; a return message tells you where the nearest Uber cars are,  how long it will take for the closest one to reach you, and how much the ride will cost. If you decide to proceed, you tap in your order, and pre-pay the fare and tip (credit card information having previously been entered). The app gives you a photo of the driver and the license-plate number, so you can identify the vehicle when it arrives, and it maps the car’s progress on the telephone screen. In our case, we watched as the little dot representing the car moved toward us on the screen.

When the trip was over, Uber sent an electronic receipt to my son’s smartphone, confirming the route and charge.

Our driver was Maria. Her car was new and clean, and she was pleasant and willing to explain the virtues of the Uber system from the driver’s perspective. She could work when it was convenient–she just turned on her phone to signal her availability. She no longer worried that she might pick up some mugger or worse–few predators will provide their credit card and identifying information.

The service was more expensive than a taxi, although not excessively. It probably doesn’t make sense in places where hailing a cab is easy. In underserved areas, however, its convenience is well worth its cost.

I don’t know whether Uber will make it–whether this new use of technology to make transportation more convenient will catch on and spread. But I marvel at the ingenuity of whoever created the system. If we look, if we open our eyes, we can find similar inventive efforts all around us. In fact, if we just take a moment to think about it, so much of the taken-for-granted activity in our daily lives would have been incomprehensible to our younger selves. From our smartphones to our laptops to our IPads and Kindles, to thermostats that communicate with us, to cars that stream our music….In earlier days–and not all that much earlier–these were the stuff of science fiction.

We have a choice. We can embrace our newly enabled existence, these gadgets and breakthroughs that ease our days, and we can use our increased productivity and saved time to enrich our minds and souls, to solve problems and help others. Or we can spend that newfound time looking for UN agents in black helicopters, and repudiating Darwin.

Our choice.