Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Technology Foresight Deficit, Revisited

The importance of collaboration, and towards a more energetic future

As I've written earlier, I have been working on understanding the factors that drive the emergence of emerging technologies, and trying to create a methodology for gauging the potential of an emerging technology. Such a methodology should go a long way towards conquering humankind's technology foresight deficit.

One insight we have recently got* indicates the importance of collaboration in bringing new technologies to market. Most modern technologies are far too complex to be brought to a stage where they are ready for business use entirely on the strength of one company, however formidable that company's innovative prowess may be. It is when the innovating company collaborates judiciously with other companies that an emerging technology has the greatest chance of seeing the light of day**. Such collaboration may be "horizontal" (between players in the same segment of the industry value chain), or "vertical"(between players in different segments of the value chain). Most standards, such as 3G for mobile telecommunications or XBRL***, represent what I call horizontal collaboration. Organizations often exist to facilitate such collaboration - the World Wide Web consortium (W3C), or the Object Management Group (OMG) are examples. Equally important, although less structured and typically more difficult to achieve, is vertical collaboration. Companies that master both forms of collaboration will be the most successful innovators in the coming years.

Technology's Future in Energy, and Vice-versa

The very essence of technology is that it usually enables humans to achieve a task with less energy. But every technology of any note also consumes energy. And since having technology at hand also means that people will undertake lots more tasks than they otherwise would have, the net effect of using technology is an overall increase in the use of energy. This is also borne out by the monotonic increase in humankind's use of energy over the millenia, which has coincided with the increasing use of technology.

Ensuring sufficient generation of energy for the world while reducing dependence on fossil fuels is thus high on the agenda. Studying a plethora of non-conventional energy sources - solar, wind, geothermal, wave and tidal, our assessment**** showed that the future of solar energy is perhaps brightest, while wind energy is sailing along smoothly. Perhaps what's most heartening is that the combined prospects for the various non-conventional sources add up to a very healthy figure. And, at a time when the prospects for conventional energy sources over the next few decades appear somewhat cloudy, that finding augurs well for the future of technology, energy and society.
* This insight was largely a consequence of work done by Chantrelle Nielsen, MBA candidate at MIT Sloan School who interned with me as part of our InStep program.

** These findings are consistent with Henry Chesbrough's widely accepted "Open Innovation" paradigm, which holds that companies increasingly need to look outside their own walls for both ideas to seed innovation, as well as routes to bring that innovation to market.

*** eXtensible Business Reporting Language, a XML standard for the electronic communication of business and financial data.

**** This work was done with intern Andres Pacheco, who is working towards his BS at Swarthmore College.