I was in Davos recently attending the World Economic Forum.
One session I attended addressed the “digical” revolution, as meaning changes taking place in the digital and physical worlds, and how they interact with each other.
A speaker said that to get a sense of tomorrow, he recently took his family to Disneyworld, where electronics and robots have been cleverly brought together for surprising entertainment. Yet the longest queue was not for the rides, but the kids lining up for a hug by a princess. The point is that human beings live in the dimension of the physical and emotional.
As a signboard at Davos prominently said, technology does not change the world – people do. What and how to use technology is our choice.
Another speaker spoke very thoughtfully about how innovation comes into our lives. He remarked that looking back at history, innovations that take root are where they replace “non-consumption” rather than “consumption“.
Take the example of the transistor. For a long time, engineers tried to re-engineer radios by trying to use transistors in place of valves. This did not succeed, whether it be for reason of novelty or reliability in the early days of the transistor. The transistor took hold as an innovation good for life when Sony introduced the transistor radio. Suddenly the teenagers could each carry around their own music, even though the sound quality was not that great in the early transistor radios – the important thing was it gave the youngsters mobility and independence. Improvements came later, and today valves hardly play a role in the life of any ordinary home. It was a case of a new innovation gaining acceptance by establishing a foothold in “non-consumption”, namely, consumers who never had radios, rather than by replacing valves for those who already had radios.
Another observation concerned electric cars. Huge efforts have been going into trying to directly replace the petrol-driven cars. Yet the most successful introduction had been with hybrid cars. No doubt, as the technology improved (especially with battery technology), newer models of cars would come about. On the other hand, like the transistor radio, if a consumer market could be found that required only short distance travelling and did not require cars to go at very high speeds, electric cars could be expected to “take off”. Is there such a potential market? Perhaps there is, if we think in terms of simply driving around in the immediate neighbourhoods rather than long distances with their demands of endurance and speed. Think about what is the most popular development in China today: motorised bicycles! Could we imagine the future as evolving from today’s motorised two-wheelers to three-wheelers and then the four-wheelers we call cars?
The speaker also mentioned how the steamships for cross-ocean travel came about. When the steam engine was first applied to ship propulsion, they were not found or perceived to be reliable enough for cross-ocean travel. So for many years the sailing ships held sway, while the steam engine became increasingly used for ships moving up and down rivers where issues of reliability were not so severe or life-threatening as land was always nearby. The steam engine was increasingly installed on cross-ocean ships as back-ups and auxiliary power for several decades, until engineering and technology caught up in terms of cost and reliability.
The point in these illustrations is that innovation has most succeeded where applications first induce or replace “non-consumption” rather than directly replace existing consumption.
Perhaps such an understanding also apply to organisational development, where the first changes are in “hybrid” mode rather than full replacement, and people get comfortable with change through an approach of “evolution in execution, revolution in results”…