Let’s start with this premise – that the future is not difficult to predict. This is not to say the weather, the stock market or who will win the world series, but in the world of technology. Technology evolves in a very deliberate manner, which leads to the second premise that all revolutionary technological innovation is incremental. This second premise reinforces the first because if all innovation is incremental then it should be, to some extent, predictable. If we can imagine an extrapolation of current technologies and where it might lead us. The process is slow however, so slow that it is difficult to see. It is even more difficult to see the moments when the incremental innovations become revolutionary until they have overtaken us. This is to be expected of inflection points. At this point it feels almost like an overnight sensation, but this ignores the decade or more of work that lead up to that moment.
The term I will use to reference this case is therefore the “10 year overnight revolution“. I hate giving Apple as an example because everybody does it, but sure, let’s look at the iPhone. The innovation of Apple was in the combination of things that already existed. Their revolutionary idea was packaging, platform and interface. These were essentially incremental improvements but truly launched the smart phone revolution. Of course this was not singular – we can trace the launch of the smart phone certainly to give credit to blackberry which created the market, but even before then to the palm and even Apple’s Newton which was clearly “before its time”. It should have been possible to trace the path of the handheld computer with clearly linear progressions in computing power and communications. The future existence of the iPhone should have been predictable in 1997 to anybody who thought about it. This does not mean that anybody could have invented it or brought a the product to market.
Let’s consider another type of example – hydraulic fracturing. The practice of horizontal drilling and hydrocarbon extraction took decades of research and development. The development of the major shale gas reserves didn’t really start until 2003. It is in this decade of development that we should focus. Here the challenge is not predicting which “lab bench” technology makes it out into the world – we simply have to look at what technology is already being deployed and look at the natural extrapolation of that development. It wasn’t until 2009 that natural gas prices dropped – partly due to the recession, but they have stayed low due to expansion in production. The point is that decades of research and field trials got a set of technologies to the point of real field trials and there was a decade of expansions that was very visible to those close to the industry. For the “rest of us” we have to wait until the price swing is upon us before the impacts are clear. Now it is conventional wisdom that the US is the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas“. The price of oil and gas are decoupled, and the price of electricity is also falling. These impacts are substantial and foreseeable.
If we realize that these types technology innovation and deployment progressions have happened before, then it stands to reason that they are happening now. There are revolutions all around us that just haven’t “tipped” yet. It may almost seem obvious in many cases but these revolutions by definition will fundamentally alter some business or way of life. The series of posts that follow will by my attempt to name some of the 10-YONRs and hint at their impacts.