In the opening keynote at #mtpcon London 2023, behavioural economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford outlines two common mistakes people make when thinking about technological innovation. Watch the video in full, or read on for highlights from his talk.
- People often imagine that the most complex technologies will be the most world-changing, but mundane innovations are often equally impactful
- The cheapness of technology, not the sophistication, can lead to critical innovation
- Many technologies offer innovative solutions, but societal shifts may be required to help unlock their potential
Tim begins by referencing the film Blade Runner, “perhaps the greatest science fiction movie ever made”, which envisions a future where replicants, synthetic humanoids, walk among humans. The film, Tim says, illustrates a common mistake that people make when looking to the future – focusing on “the most complex, the most sophisticated, the most magical technology we can think of” to change the world. In turn, people overlook the potential impact of less futuristic technological innovations. So while replicants are still a concept for the future, in the film, which is set in 2017, payphones are used as a primary means of communication.
The toilet paper principle
Looking at technologies of the past millennium, Tim describes how Gutenberg’s moveable printing press is often cited as the most important innovation. Paper, a more “mundane” technology, had existed for 1,500 years before the printing press, and its increased usage in Germany in the 15th century undoubtedly influenced Gutenberg’s work, because “the moveable printing press is completely useless without paper”. Tim says the essential cheapness of paper and the combination of technologies available led to meaningful innovation.
Paper is an example of what Tim calls the “toilet paper principle of tech”, where a product is fundamentally not better than the alternative, but changes the world through cheapness rather than sophistication – “so cheap you can wipe anything you like with it”. The same principle, he says, is true for barbed wire, a technology that was only just as good as timber fencing but revolutionised land ownership, due to ease and cost of production, coupled with the demand brought about by Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Acts. At the time, American men were entitled to fence off farmland in return for ownership, and barbed wire was marketed as “lighter than air, stronger than whiskey and cheaper than dust”.
Similar examples exist today, Tim says, referencing how technologists have talked about nuclear power as a key innovator for 50 years, while solar energy solutions have been getting progressively cheaper. In what he calls “the IKEAisation of solar power”, we can see an example of both price influencing change and of the disconnect between the conversations we have around world-changing technology and reality.
Systemic change as an innovation driver
The second common mistake people make when thinking about innovation, Tim says, is to think that new specific technologies will instantly replace current systems with life-altering results. For example, in Blade Runner, flying cars and replicants are commonplace but society hasn’t changed and still just looks like “Los Angeles or Tokyo, albeit with more rain and noodles”. The truth is, the world often needs to change first to introduce the radical benefits or changes brought by technology.
Pointing to a real-world example, Tim describes how the electric dynamo revolutionised factories in the 19th century, affecting not only the way people worked but also the configuration of the factory floor, which was redesigned around workflow efficiency (in a precursor to the production line), rather than power consumption. While many had seen the technology for 30 years and assumed it would simply replace existing power sources, it was not until societal and organisational factors such as labour and skills changes took place that factory owners could unlock the productivity of the new technology.
Modern technological innovations
For many years, technologists have been asking whether tools like computers, the internet, smartphones and artificial intelligence (AI) possess the same potential to fundamentally change the world. “My guess is yes,” Tim says, “it takes a lot of time before we figure out how to use them […] in the end, we will bend to fit the technology.”
He forecasts that technologies like AI can either make jobs more creative and interesting, like historically digital transformations had on roles such as accounting, or less skilled such as the impact of navigational tracking on warehouse packing work. “I think we get to choose if we want, and I hope we make the right choice.”
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