To Build The Technology Of Tomorrow We Need To Create The Ecosystems Today

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April 25, 2023

There are a number of stories about what led Hans Lipperhey to submit a patent for the telescope in 1608. Some say that he saw two children playing with lenses in his shop who discovered that when they put one lens in front of each other they could see a weather vane across the street. Others say it was an apprentice that noticed the telescopic effect.

Yet the more interesting question is how such an important discovery could have such prosaic origins. Why was it that it was at that time that somebody noticed that looking through two lenses would magnify objects and not before? How could it have been that the discovery was made in a humble workshop and not by some great personage?

The truth is that history tends to converge and cascade around certain places and times, such as Cambridge before World War I, Vienna in the 1920s or, more recently, in Silicon Valley. In each case, we find that there were ecosystems that led to the inventions that changed the world. If we are going to build a more innovative economy, that’s where we need to focus.

How The Printing Press Led To A New Era Of Science

The mystery surrounding the invention of the telescope in the early 1600s begins to make more sense when you consider that the printing press was invented a little over a century before. By the mid-1500s books were transformed from priceless artifacts rarely seen outside monasteries, to something common enough that people could keep in their homes.

As literacy flourished, the need for spectacles grew exponentially and lens making became a much more common trade. With so many lenses around, it was only a matter of time before someone figured out that combining two lenses would create a compound effect and result in magnification (the microscope was invented around the same time).

From there, things began to move quickly. In 1609, Galileo Galilei first used the telescope to explore the heavens and changed our conception of the universe. He was able to see stars that were invisible to the naked eye, mountains and valleys on the moon and noticed that, similar to the moon, Venus had phases suggesting that it revolved around the sun.

Scala/Art Resource, New York

A half century later, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek built himself a microscope and discovered an entirely new world made up of cells and fibers far too small for the human eye to detect.  For the first time we became aware of bacteria and protozoa, creating the new field of microbiology. The world began to move away from ancient superstition and into one of observation and deduction.

It’s hard to see how any of this could have been foreseen when Gutenberg printed his first bible. Galileo and van Leeuwenhoek were products of their age as much as they were creators of the future.

How The Light Bulb Helped To Reshape Life, Work And Diets

In 1882, just three years after he had almost literally shocked the world with his revolutionary lighting system, Thomas Edison opened his Pearl Street Station, the first commercial electrical distribution plant in the United States. By 1884 it was already servicing over 500 homes.Yet for the next few decades, electric light remained mostly a curiosity.

As the economist Paul David explains in The Dynamo and the Computer, electricity didn’t have a measurable impact on the economy until the early 1920’s — 40 years after Edison’s plant.  The problem wasn’t with electricity itself, Edison quickly expanded his distribution network as did his rival George Westinghouse, but a lack of complementary technologies.

To truly impact productivity, factories had to be redesigned to function not around a single steam turbine, but with smaller electric motors powering each machine. That created the opportunity to  reimagine work itself, which led to the study of management. Greater productivity raised living standards and a new consumer culture.

Much like with the printing press, the ecosystem created by electric light led to secondary and tertiary inventions. Radios changed the way people received information and were entertained. Refrigeration meant not only that food could be kept fresh, but sent over large distances, reshaping agriculture and greatly improving diets.

The Automobile And The Category Killer

The internal combustion engine was developed in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s. Two of its primary inventors, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, began developing cars in the mid-1880’s. Henry Ford came two decades later. By pioneering the assembly line, he transformed cars from an expensive curiosity into a true “product for the masses” and it was this transformation that led to its major impact.

When just a few people have a car, it is merely a mode of transportation. But when everyone has a car, it becomes a force that reshapes society. People move from crowded cities into bedroom communities in the suburbs. Social relationships change, especially for farmers who previously lived their entire lives within a single day’s horse ride of 10 or 12 square miles. Lives opened up. Worlds broadened.

New infrastructure, like roads and gas stations were built. Improved logistics began to reshape supply chains and factories moved from cities in the north—close to customers—to small towns in the south, where labor and land were cheaper. That improved the economics of manufacturing, improved incomes and enriched lives.

With the means to easily carry a week’s worth of groceries, corner stores were replaced by supermarkets. Eventually suburbs formed and shopping malls sprang up. In the US, Little League baseball became popular. With mobility combined with the productivity effects of electricity, almost every facet of life—where we lived, worked and shopped—was reshaped.

Embarking On A New Era Of Innovation

These days, it seems that every time you turn around you see some breakthrough technology that will change our lives. We see media reports about computing breakthroughs, miracle cures, new sources of energy and more. Unfortunately, very few will ever see the outside of a lab and even fewer will prove commercially viable enough to impact our lives.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are real discoveries produced by serious scientists and reported by reputable sources. The problem is with how science works. At any given time there are a myriad of exciting possibilities, but very few pan out and even the ones that do usually take decades to make an impact.

Digital technology is a great example of how this happens. As AnnaLee Saxenian explained in Regional Advantage, back in the 1970s and 80s, when Boston was the center of the technology universe, Silicon Valley invested in an ecosystem, which included not just corporations, but scientific labs, universities and community colleges. New England rejected that approach. The results speak for themselves.

If you want to understand the technology of tomorrow, don’t try to imagine an idea no one has ever thought of, but look at the problems people are working on today. You’ll find a vast network working on quantum computing, a significant synthetic biology economy, a large-scale effort in materials science and billions of dollars invested into energy storage startups.

That’s why, if we are to win the future, we need to invest in ecosystems. It’s the nodes that grab attention, but the networks that make things happen.

This article first appeared on Greg Satell's own blog. Read that and more here.

Guest contributor Greg Satell
Guest contributor Greg Satell
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April 25, 2023