RUNNING FORWARD, LOOKING BACKWARD
While it is impossible to predict exactly how new technologies will transform our lives, we can be sure that our first attempts to create products and services based on emerging technologies will mostly fail. Failure is common because, while executives can envisage the tangible benefits of a new technology, they invariably rely on frameworks from the past to understand the future for those using what they make and, indeed, their organizations.
Eventually, new frameworks will emerge that are better at explaining how customers, businesses and technology all adapt to find a mutually acceptable “fitness” level.
We saw such new frameworks during the second industrial revolution. Driven by technology breakthroughs, such as the Bessemer steel process, electrification, the mass production assembly line, telephone and radio broadcasting, we created new production facilities, companies and markets on unprecedented scales. But, there were many failures before the right fit and balance were found.
For example, an early vision of the telephone was people listening to concerts in neighboring villages. Reframed as a talking tool, the vision was then to install a ‘phone on every street block. And to prove that old frameworks still run strong, we still call the device a telephone, even though we use it more often than not to send texts, photos, and tweets.;
Another example: “horseless carriages” were at the center of a technological experiment, originally producing expensive toys for wealthy hobbyists. It took Henry Ford to imagine an inexpensive standardized car for the middle classes. His framework included a new assembly process, a dealer network, and a savings bank for employees paid well enough so that they could afford a Model-T for themselves.
Creating Fit with People and the Planet
The Industrial Revolution enabled hundreds of millions of people in the 20th Century to live a middle-class life. It has created a consumer-driven society, enabling companies to grow and create new wealth. We are now discovering some unintended consequences. For one, a consumption-based economy leads to an unsustainable use of natural resources. And unchecked corporate growth, while good for the economy, can lead to poorer citizens.
20th Century innovations were driven by cheap oil, fixed production, and economic standards that ignored intangible values that were difficult to count. What is the value of clean air? What is the cost of poor schools for our children?
In contrast, future innovations will, in general, be driven by cheap information, flexible production systems and will count both tangible and intangible values. But the nature of how our lives fit into this future is only starting to come into view and we urgently need frameworks that let us face forward.