Revised on 2 March 2018.
I receive questions daily about the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, 3D printing and many other technologies and whether and how I think these technologies will disrupt manufacturing and education in particular and the world in general. These questions are not only from government officials, but also from businesspeople, friends and fellow geeks.
Let me briefly state that I don’t believe it is possible to spot a paradigm shift in the future or in the present. So I would be hesitant to predict whether or when all these big changes will happen. However, when we look back we can spot shifts. Technological change typically takes places slowly but surely, and then at a certain point there is a massive shift. The point I would like to make is that even the futurists have great problems predicting the direction of that sudden shift. We must also consider that technological paradigm shifts almost invariably do not work out the way they are predicted to do before they occur.
For the last few decades many major technological advancements have been heralded as game changers. The advances are often generalised as sweeping statements about large-scale change. However, in most cases, new advances take a long time penetrating our daily lives, if they ever get that far.
So let me rephrase the original question a little. Perhaps the question is more about figuring out which technologies are diffused quicker than others, and why. This is something that we can calculate to some degree using a short history and the current status quo of assessments of technologies that are being touted as near-term game changers.
Dissemination of technology or knowledge always consists of at least three elements. I will for now ignore the process of diffusion for the sake of brevity. There is a supply side, a demand side and some kind of institutional or social construct that enables and even multiplies the diffusion.
The supply side is often most optimistic about how their ideas are going to change the game. The demand side is often naive about how useful a new technology is in real terms. Many potential users simply wait and see. Then there are the institutional mechanisms that operate at local, national, regional and international levels. There are lots of tensions at this institutional level, because this is where a whole range of social technologies, formal and informal, have to emerge or change. Just think of how US-based software companies are constantly coming up against data privacy groups in Europe. I am sometimes grateful that the institutional level takes time to change. Changing institutions to enable knowledge dissemination often requires multiple knowledge domains, different management levels and social play-offs. Often changing institutional support to improve diffusion must also cater for integrating and synchronising many other simultaneous change processes that are not only technological. They could be about regulations, rights and creating new forms of organisation. Furthermore, physical technology does not always change things the way we expect. After all, innovation is a process of combination and recombination, both at the level of physical technologies and also at the level of social technologies.
There are typically a few constraints that frustrate the diffusion of new technologies broadly speaking. The first is the fixed costs of the technology itself. Fixed costs slow down supply (otherwise we would already have electric vehicle charging points throughout the country), and also slow down demand (I cannot afford a Tesla yet).
Suppliers like to think that their solutions will fix social mechanisms, but this is often the area where change is the slowest. Social technologies often take the longest time to evolve (for instance in developing standards and regulations for electric vehicles, charging points and recycling of batteries). By evolving, the technology itself often changes with respect to its use, meaning and value – often beyond what the originators had in mind. Thus while individual users can quickly adopt a new technology or idea, formal institutions, regulations and supporting infrastructure often take longer to adapt to new ideas. This means that the supporting ecosystem that enables new ideas to be quickly diffused perhaps adds additional costs (perhaps massive infrastructure investment or learning is needed), or fails to reduce costs in the diffusion of ideas. This is where the second constraint comes in. It depends on how complex are the required social changes. I mentioned earlier that institutional diffusion must also integrate different complementary technologies. For instance, using a smartphone to make phone calls is easy (single technological paradigm). Using a smartphone to manage or monitor a part of a production line requires many complementary and concurrent capabilities and technologies. It may even require completely rethinking organisational structures, production lines and supplier networks. Simply put, if the new idea is very complicated to use (due to the many concurrent investments and capabilities that are needed), then the costs goes up in terms of education, regulation, infrastructure, coordination, specialisation, management and so on. Just think of what it would take for South Africa to adopt driverless electric vehicles …
Perhaps this also explains why individual companies (think hierarchies) tend to absorb technologies easier than societies or economic sectors. Inside a company management can overcome coordination failures much easier than within a sector or broader society. Meso institutions such as universities and technology transfer organisations are very important for overcoming these coordination costs, but they tend to change slower.
The complexity of technology and its demands on the meso organisation is important in my work. I help these organisations figure out how to navigate the complexity of new technology adaptation and diffusion. It requires an understanding of users, some understanding of technologies, but a lot of understanding of the process of change and organisation. I don’t think I would be able to do my work without my understanding of market failures, especially with regard to failures in the capturing, dissemination, absorption or valuing of knowledge.
There are lots of amazing technological ideas out there that have been tried, tested and measured and found to be effective. Many companies here in South Africa are already using these technologies. So supply and demand exists, and in many cases there are transactions. Yet many of our industries, enterprises, universities and policy makers don’t know how these technologies can save costs, improve efficiency or strengthen resilience. Nor do they know which ideas will stick or have the most impact. So there is a missing institutional capability that reduces the complexity of the technology. What is often missing are institutions that make the dissemination of new ideas easier and cheaper. It is often more the case that the users (and possibly suppliers) don’t know how much the full implementation or use of these ideas would cost, or what skills, complementarities or networks are needed to master new ideas. Many market-supporting social technologies (in the form of institutions and networks) are lacking. Somebody must reduce the search, evaluation and coordination costs. This is where the complexity lies. And neither do we want our institutions to try and implement every new technology – this is where social balance and a longer-term vision are required.
So now I can get back to trends such as the Internet of Things or digitisation of the manufacturing environment. Many manufacturers know about Computer Aided Design (CAD) simulation or even rapid prototyping. But how can we reduce their risk of trying 3D printing, or how can they add more sensors to their production facilities so that they can improve measurement and control? It is not just about the cost of using the technology once or twice. There are issues that are holding entrepreneurs back from simply rushing to an online store and hitting “buy now”. Where would they get the trained staff from? How would they train existing staff? How would they manage a new competency? What would it cost to certify or maintain? Where would they find new customers or suppliers, and what would it cost them to develop the complementary capability and optimally use the new technology? And most importantly, how do we reduce their risks of trying something in different combinations? These are the issues that a network of institutions must consider as they craft their technology extension and demonstration strategies.
For me there is a strong role for technology intermediaries to play in demonstrating, perhaps on a small scale, how new technologies can be integrated into existing workplaces. This means that technology intermediaries must be funded to host (and master) a wide range of complementary technologies, so that entrepreneurs can combine what they have in place with the capabilities of these technology intermediaries. Or that new entrepreneurs not burdened by sunk investments can use their agility to gain access to complementary technologies in order to create new markets. These institutions should not be measured by how many companies fully absorb new technologies (this could lead to perverse incentives), but perhaps by how many companies have tried, engaged with and been exposed to new ideas.
At the same time, policy makers should look at ways to introduce new technologies into developing countries beyond demonstration or technology extension. Some countries such as Germany or Singapore have also been purposefully supporting disruptive incumbent enterprises by supporting the uptake of new technologies. Sometimes you can demonstrate until you are blue in the face, but incumbents won’t change if they don’t have to, and small enterprises sometimes simply cannot build up the momentum to challenge the status quo.
I would like to end this blog by briefly summarising what I’ve been discussing. For me the question of how new technologies may affect our lives is too focused on the hardware and the geeks who love it. Even though I admire the suppliers and developers of new technologies, and I really admire the sophisticated users who are constantly inducing the emergence of newer and greater technologies, I believe that the real change we need is in getting better at creating responsive institutions that lower the costs for suppliers and buyers to try new things. This is where we can overcome many of the costs that slow down the absorption or dissemination of new technologies.