What is the source of innovation?

Innovation sometimes comes from unexpected places and other times from known planned processes, which take place in famous research labs and universities.

However, it is interesting that some of the innovations that completely changed the course of history, like the telephone and the steam engine, have so far been brought forth by relatively unknown outlying persons who thought of new ways to solve existing problems.

Technological disruption is not (necessarily) new versus old

When one thinks of technological disruption, it is not always necessary that the disruptive technology is some new invention, as pointed out by Nassim Taleb.

Thus, when self driving cars begin to dominate the landscape, it is conceivable that bicycles, a much older technology than cars, could very well disrupt transportation because of roads having been made safe again by self driving cars.

Industrial age

The result of the industrial revolution was to bring millions of people out of poverty and change the fortunes of several countries. We are still living in the aftermath of this era. This is how the English language and the prevalence of British/American culture has come to dominate many countries of the world.

Acceleration of technological progress

Newton’s second law defines what acceleration is. The rate of velocity or velocity per unit time is a way to think about it.

To go from the steam engine to widespread usage of the telephone took nearly a century and a half.

However, to go from the internet to widespread use of smart phones took around a couple of decades.

At this accelerated pace, when will self driving cars and trips to Mars become commonplace? The answer is: in the not too distant future.

Disruptive creation

Historically, there have been many occasions when an existing market or technology has been disrupted and made obsolete by a new innovation.

One of the earliest instances of this was the telephone. In the 1800s, Western Union was the telegraph monopoly who controlled the market. They also had their fingers in politics and were fielding their own US presidential candidates. However, with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, Western Union’s monopoly was broken and the telephone replaced the telegraph as the most prevalent instrument for communication. Bell’s company (later going by the name of AT&T) was to become a monopoly in it’s own right. As Joseph Schumpeter described it, it was creative destruction in practice.

Similar things happened when the personal computer disrupted the mainframe market and the internet disrupted several markets. I’m sure there will be many more instances of this occurring in the future and the present day.

Historical impact of technology, continued

I would like to continue a bit more on the scheme of technology and history. Just in terms of communications alone, for the past several millennia, letter writing has been the predominant mode of communication for most people. Email, instant and text messaging has changed all that.

Also, the democratization of knowledge with websites like wikipedia has meant that all the information in the world is at everyone’s fingertips. This has had innumerable side effects. It has changed the way people sell to one another. Back when ‘buyer beware’ was a common cautionary measure, information was not so freely available. Today’s salespeople have to come up with genuine reasons to sell based on the needs of clients. This has been noted by the author, Daniel Pink.

All the above factors have meant that in the post-industrial age, innovation, service and knowledge have become the cornerstones of the economy.

Historical impact of technology

In many ways, we are living through a revolutionary time in terms of how much impact technology has had and will have on this world. It would be difficult to accurately​ predict what impact the present day technology will have had on history. Who knows? Perhaps, two hundred years from now, people will regard the technology of today as some primitive beginning on the road to the future.

However, just in the last decade or so, several things have changed in the way we lead our lives. For example, the web has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even think twice about telling someone to ‘Google’ for something.

The proliferation of smartphones has been the other phenomenon which has changed the lifestyles of many people all over the world.

One of the curious side effects of all this is that this technology is no longer restricted to the western countries. The impact of this progress has been felt even in the rural areas of India and other developing nations. Indeed, in such countries, the absence of a stable internet infrastructure has meant that mobile data over 2G/3G/4G has been the dominant way to access the web.

Just ten years ago, virtually noone would’ve been able to navigate easily anywhere in most countries using a phone and cellular connection. Virtually noone had heard of people setting up businesses and using websites as their main marketing tool. Other web utilities like social media have hugely influenced the course of history by impacting elections and social changes.

Looking back at this, say two hundred years from now, it would certainly be curious as to how this period would be perceived. We cannot know this for certain but we can certainly speculate!