“Things can only get better?”
In 1985, the year after I left university, Howard Jones released his hit “Things Can Only Get Better” which included the lines:
“A thousand sceptic hands / won’t keep us from the things we plan / unless we’re clinging to the things we prize”
These words neatly capture a paradox in the human drive to innovate. We love to develop new ideas and invent novel ways to do things. But we also love to cling to the old ways, to the familiar and comfortable.
Humans have a hard-wired intellectual curiosity but it’s balanced by a deep-seated natural caution. This creates tension. Our inquisitive nature is at odds with a wary, suspicious instinct that often makes us slow to embrace and adapt to change.
It’s an instinct that I recognise in myself as a get older…
The accelerating pace of technology-enabled innovation
The pace of technology-enabled innovation has accelerated gently throughout most of my life. Looking back over the last fifty years it all seems quite manageable and benign until we enter the post-millennium years.
To put that in perspective, I would ask you to pause for a brief moment and consider how the rate of change has accelerated in the last decade – especially so, in just the last few years…
…From the Sony Walkman to the iCloud:
I was 17 in 1979 when Sony launched the Walkman portable cassette player. This technology evolved quite slowly over the next twenty years, culminating in the 1999 launch of the CD Walkman.
Then things changed dramatically…
The iPod was launched in 2001. The iPod Touch arrived in 2009 – complete with Wi-Fi, web browser, apps and video. And, in 2011, came the iCloud and, overnight, music streaming effectively kicked CD sales into touch.
…From the first desk-top computer to the Internet of Things:
IBM developed the first “desk top” computer in 1959. The COBOL programming language was developed in 1964 and twenty years later it was still the dominant language. In 1984, I remember proudly joining a ‘state-of-the-art’ company that boasted a single twin-floppy IBM AT personal computer on each floor of its London headquarters!
It was to be yet another ten years before Mark Zuckerberg launched ‘The Facebook’ and Google announced ‘Gmail’. These were the real curtain-raisers to a massive technology revolution…
In the last few years – thanks to ‘The Cloud’ and the dawning ‘Internet of Things’ – we have witnessed an explosive growth in connectivity.
…From Karl Benz to the Google Self-Driving Car:
Karl Benz developed the first petrol powered automobile in 1886 and, during the next 100 years, the modern car evolved incrementally until, in 1986, Audi introduced their 4-wheel drive, turbo-charged, fuel-injected, ABS equipped Quattro.
At the time, the Audi Quattro was the ultimate road, rally and race car – the pinnacle of automotive performance. But, in development terms, we hadn’t seen anything yet…
In the last twenty years we have seen adaptive cruise control with self-parking and we are now experimenting with driverless cars. Humans are, literally, being eliminated from the driving experience.
Each of these examples – and there are many more I could cite – illustrate the same exponential curve of technology-enabled innovation in recent years. And this acceleration is so relentless that it raises some very fundamental questions…