When a new technology appears it is usually accompanied by great excitement, at least from its inventors. What new opportunities does the technology open up? Where can we use it?
The early enthusiasm quickly runs into practical barriers. The Gartner Hype Cycle memorably captures the fate of a new technology. It shows the evolution through five stages:
- Innovation trigger
- Peak of inflated expectations
- Trough of disillusionment
- Slope of enlightenment
- Plateau of productivity
In the same way that most innovations don’t succeed in the market, most new technologies don’t deliver on their initial promise. Having crashed from high expectations to general disillusionment, they wither and die, linger in limbo, or find a modest niche application.
A few technologies make it through the trough of disillusionment and find wide application, often in unexpected areas.
There are five ways a technology can come back from a near-death experience:
- Cut costs
- Improve performance
- Find a new application
- Combine with other technologies
- Ecosystem change
Get the cost down
This is the classic escape from the trough of disillusionment. A high initial price provokes a dismissive reaction – “yes, it is a cool idea, but it is too expensive.“, and the variant “it will always be too expensive because…”. Reducing the cost is often the best way to increase interest in a new technology.
In most manufactured products there is an experience curve. As production increases the cost per unit falls. So, if an innovation can find enough early adopters, the price will fall, and more and more users will find it attractive.
We have seen this happen dramatically in renewable energy with massive reductions in the cost per kWh for wind farms and photovoltaics. Now cost competitive for new construction with fossil fuel or nuclear power generation they will be cheaper in the future. Subsidy support from governments has helped renewable volumes increase to where they can compete directly on cost.
Improve the performance of the technology
Sometimes you can see where to use a technology, but the performance isn’t good enough to compete with current solutions. People have been researching biodegradable bio-derived polymers for many years. The obvious application is in packaging and other single-use plastics. They could solve the problems of litter and plastic pollution in the oceans.
The problem is that the bioplastics available don’t have the performance required for packaging. They are not strong enough, don’t have good barrier properties, and are not ideal for high-speed packaging lines.
Bioplastics do find applications in areas like healthcare. They make good wound dressings, drug carrier systems and scaffolds for reconstructive surgery, but they are not yet ready for the big markets that consumers see every day.
Find a different application for the technology
Pfizer scientists were researching drugs that would increase blood flow, with the treatment of angina the main target. In the back of their minds there was another area where more blood flow would be useful, erectile dysfunction in men, but the commercial target was angina. Clinical trials of one candidate drug, sildenafil, showed that it was not good for angina, but was remarkably effective in promoting erections, and Viagra was born.
Another drug that worked better in a different application is Minoxidil. Developed by Upjohn as a vasodilator for high blood pressure, it had the curious side effect of promoting hair growth. Now its main use is in treating hair loss in both sexes.
Keeping an eye out for other potential applications is an important part of understanding a new technology. Your first target may not work out.
Create a new package by combining technologies
Often a single technology cannot deliver a big step forward on its own. It needs to be combined with other technologies, some old and some new, to create a package that re-writes the rules.
A good example was the ships that launched the Age of Discovery in the 15th – 17th Centuries. For the first time, European mariners could sail on long voyages, in any direction, and at any time of year. They took the large carrack hull used for cargo, added the triangular lateen sail so the ship could sail closer to the wind and the sternpost rudder instead of a steering oar. Both these innovations were already over 1000 years old. Together with the magnetic compass which allowed navigation under cloudy skies, these ships could
sail right around the world.
The package of technologies created a disruptive leap forward.
The development of fibre-optic communications has a similar pattern. In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell unveiled the Photophone, a system that could transmit sound on a beam of light. However, range and reliability were poor. In 1956 the University of Michigan demonstrated optical fibres using two different types of glass and in 1962 Robert Hall developed the semiconductor laser. By 1977 the first telephone conversations were being sent over optical fibre. With improvements in lasers, fibres and electronics, the range and bandwidth increased to become the backbone of the world telecoms system. Now it is cheap and reliable enough for me to have a direct fibre connection to my house in a rural area.
A disruptive technology may need the whole industrial ecosystem to change
By 1881, electricity was being generated commercially in power stations and distributed to users. By 1883 electric motors were being used in industry. Yet factories continued to buy and instal inefficient steam engines. Why?
During the industrial revolution factories and steam power developed in parallel. A single large steam engine drove a shaft that ran the length of the factory. Individual machines then drew their power from the shaft using flexible belts. Large steam engines were more efficient, and you only needed one team to service them; small steam engines were inefficient and inconvenient. You would not want a weaver to look after their own engine!
The steam-driven line shaft defined the layout of the factory, the machines used, and the way people worked.
With electric motors, the obvious thing to do is to power each machine separately. It avoids the losses and inefficiency of the line shaft. But that means the electric motor is not a drop-in replacement for the steam engine. To get the advantage, you need to rethink the layout and flow of work, the machines you use and the way people operate those machines. With all the investment in the existing ways of doing things, it took forty years for the electric motor to have the expected impact.
Technologies can recover from near-death experiences
If you have developed a new technology, and it is getting stuck. Look at these escape routes. What is the barrier to success and what can you do about it? Sometimes pivoting to a new application gives a smaller market that needs your technology and allows time to drive down the experience curve. A key question with any technology is – what does this enable you to do now that you could not do before? What are its unique advantages?
If you are working on a problem and can’t find the right solution, a trawl around lesser-known technologies used in other sectors can inspire. Perhaps adapting or combining technologies will unlock the new solution you are looking for.