On the Future of Innovation

By Peter Heller

Nowadays, the typical presentation of a futurologist is a near-infinite roll call of possibilities. Sometimes more than a hundred slides create something like a stop-motion film. They consist of photos and drawings that are randomly attached to any combination of various kinds of possible advances in nano-, bio-, and information technology. This leads to the creation of myths, which come to life in the imagination and thus attain a strange quasi-existence. The intelligent fridge (iFridge anyone?) that communicates with its contents and the supermarket is such a case in point. Nobody needs it, nobody has it, nobody can buy it, but it is hard to think of an example of our vision of the future that is so ingrained in our mind. A lot of predictions of the future that were made in the 1950s and 1960s now seem quite childish: the colonisation of the oceans and outer space, factories at zero gravity, gigantic magnetic monorails, and enormous supersonic aeroplanes that bridge the continents.

It is safe to say that it was with the publication of Herman Kahn’s and Anthony Wiener’s The Year 2000 in 1967 that such prognostics became socially acceptable. If, at first glance, it seems this optimism about the future was subsequently replaced by a more sceptical attitude, truth be told, ecological doubts and fears about the depletion of natural resources only fuel the creativity of futurologists. The nuclear-powered automobile is merely replaced by the battery-powered car, oh, and though the power is derived from wind energy, needless to say the curvaceous design remains. Fusion power is now called Desertec and the nuclear reactor for everyone is now a small power station for the single family house, powered by a gas engine. Kahn and Wiener predicted 100 technological innovations, and about half of them came to fruition. So, is futurology with a success rate of 50% merely a simple guessing game that any layman could play just as well as an expert?

The answer can be found in those predictions of Kahn and Wiener that turned out correct. Almost all the predictions in the fields of information and communications technology came true. Back in 1967, they didn’t just predict the PC and its impact on office life and leisure time, but also the video recorder, satellite television, home banking, industrial robots, traffic management systems, and the mobile phone. In the fields of energy, mobility, and health, barely a prediction was correct. Viewed with today’s experience, these flights of fancy that range from programmed dreams to artificial moons and massive cargo submarines ought to bring a smile to the face of the reader. Oh, by the way, according to Kahn and Wiener, the battery-powered car was meant to dominate the automobile market by the year 2000.

But technological trends aren’t everything; sure, a few boffins were able to predict back in 1967 that the miniaturisation of circuits was bound to advance the performance of electronic data processing. But materials sciences, bio and genetic technology, cognitive sciences, and even such mundane things such as the efficiency of the internal combustion engine were coming a long way too. So why did the integrated circuit enable such a wide range of new opportunities and products, while light weight construction materials, nano structures, and a better understanding of the composition and function of DNA didn’t really or only to a very limited degree? The answer is that Kahn and Wiener, just like most futurologists today, forgot the primary user, the customer. It is he or she that decides with his or her wallet the fate of any innovation, not by giving heed to dreamy eyed visions but by asking himself or herself the rational question: what is it good for? What’s its use?

Every technological innovation becomes attractive to the user because of a special utility function he or she can gain from it. The utility function is valued using three criteria:

Robustness: the use must be reliable and always available.
Safety: Use of the product should not be hazardous.
Cost-effectiveness: The value that the user derives from the use of the product must be higher than acquisition and running costs.

Every innovation is compared to already-existing technology using these criteria. If it fares worse, then the product obviously won’t prevail. Even though it was used in some experiments, the self-cleaning surface failed to materialise into more than a gadget. So far, it wasn’t possible to create a surface robust enough to withstand repeated mechanical interaction. 3D printing also failed to catch on at home, despite the predictions made by Kahn and Wiener, because it only offers limited possibilities at significant costs. People won’t feel tempted to create individualised everyday items such as toothbrushes, plates, or cutlery at home if they can buy the same mass-produced objects in a number of different styles at unrivalled prices.

It must also be said that these three central user requirements of technology sometimes contradict one another. So, for instance, having a higher level of security sometimes means that you need to make amends regarding availability. You are more likely to suffer an accident while travelling by car than by train or plane—in the latter cases, one travels along clearly defined and monitored infrastructures with professional drivers or pilots; in a car, one doesn’t. By using a train or plane, the traveller loses the ability to plan his or her journey individually and has to stick to timetables. Safety and cost-effectiveness are often also at loggerheads with one another. Safety systems cost money and do not contribute to running the technological system more efficiently. This conflict between profit and reliability was illustrated when in December 2009 a steam-locomotive was used in Great Britain for the first time in 50 years. In the extreme cold, electric trains became useless—steam-engines on the other hand require a lot of energy to get running and have a lower degree of efficiency, but are otherwise weather resistant.

From the user’s point of view, any technological system has its drawbacks and as the successful predictions in the past proved, it was those innovations that reduced those drawbacks the most that became successful. It was because they overcame the contradictions of the three utility functions that users demand of their products.

The mobile phone, for example, allows you to make or receive a phone call at any time at any place and is now filled with all kinds of additional extras. It became so cost-effective that some people don’t require a landline any more. The battery-powered electric car is wrought with flaws. It is much more expensive than a petrol- or diesel-engined car, it cannot cover the same distances, and when it gets charged, it is not available for quite some time. Moreover, there are a number of potential safety issues that you should keep in the back of the mind. It could happen that the batteries catch fire or that even though you survived the impact of a car crash, you get electrocuted because the batteries short-circuit and turn the car into the equivalent of an electric chair on wheels. Obviously, futurologists are quick to point out that an electric car can fulfil up to 85% of our mobility needs. This begs the question: who in the right frame of mind would buy such a vehicle for €40,000 if he or she could have one for €30,000 that would satisfy his or her needs 100%?

It is a human trait to not just invest into an immediate but also a potential use. Just because a car remains stationary for most of the day should not fool us into thinking that they weren’t bought for that purpose (they are there when you need them.) Cars are bought to satisfy the unpredictable, unplanned desire to be mobile. In the same way, you don’t spend the entire day on the mobile phone (unless you are teenager) it is still your constant companion.

Following mobility and communications, access to energy, heating, fuels, and especially electricity is another basic need. It is expected to always receive enough electricity, regardless of which appliance is at what time in use. The current electricity network fulfils this demand perfectly. It is designed in such a way that the supply fulfils the demand. Customers pay for this promise to always receive enough energy at any time for any purpose. Just as a car promises potential mobility and a mobile phone potential communications, electricity enables potential use.

Those colourful images that futurologists conjure up do have an impact on political life though. It is only too easy to chose from this bouquet of opportunities those that appear to be the solution for imaginary or real problems. Kahn and Wiener did not just predict that by the year 2000 there would be farms on the bottom of the sea, we would be able to control the weather, and interplanetary (manned) space travel would take place, but also the ascendancy of alternative energy (sources) and electric vehicles. All of this was supposed to happen by the mystical year 2000. Following decades of (this) ecological influence on the funding for (the) economy and innovation, these conceptions are somewhat solidified. Electric mobility and ‘smart energy networks’ are in this parallel world of catastrophic climate change and the no-less frightening prospects of resource shortages just as quasi-existent as the intelligent fridge.

All the government subsidies for alternative but rather volatile energy sources such as wind power and photovoltaics or buzzwords like ‘smart networks’ and ‘intelligent electricity meters’ suffer from a profound error in reasoning made by futurologists. The desired restructuring of the electricity supply requires a profound change to consumer behaviour. To put it simply, this means you ought to adjust your demand to the supply. In practice, this means you have to wash your clothes, refrigerate your organic tofu, and charge your car when wind, sun, and the operator say you can. The ideal case would be for the energy provider to decide automatically when is the best time. That would mean other domestic appliances are subject to external injunctions too. So, when you need to clean an item of clothing in your laundry at a particular time and ‘the computer says no’, you could use the car to drive to the laundrette, but chances are it is plugged in the garage with the battery half full and it won’t work.

Government, economists, and product developers would be well advised to concentrate on those recommendations made by futurologists that consider the wishes of the user. The needs of the customer decide whether a technological innovation becomes successful or not, and the user prefers those innovations that improve upon existing technologies in the fields of energy, communications, and mobility by dissolving the tensions between robustness, safety, and cost-effectiveness without any compromise.

The currently well-supplied and heavily-promoted sector of wind and sun energy is in no shape or form an ideal improvement and hence a potentially successful innovation. What happens if the final at the Champions League is underway and there is no electricity to power the TV? Then you want a diesel-generator from the nearest hardware store, if you can find a cab that is.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/mobility_tomorrow_just_take_a_cab/

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