Innovations in technologies can be put into two categories: ‘centralised technologies’ and ‘distributed technologies’. Regarding the first group, they are essentially enormous scientific-technical advances requiring colossal investments by big companies and governments. Although they initially contribute technical advantages, they do not ultimately reduce costs, and these technologies can only be utilised by experts. Moreover, centralised technologies transform a given sector of activity at a pace set by established competitors who reserve the right of use for years via patents or huge investment commitments. Take the airplane, MRIs, solar thermo energy or supercomputers as examples.
Noted for their ease of use and low cost, the second group (distributed technologies) on the other hand, is composed of more modest jumps in technology, generally the result of considerable innovations realised in the first group. These transform a given sector at a pace set by consumers or users. For some everyday examples, think of the bicycle, telemedicine, home energy management systems or even smartphones.
In thinking about which technologies will triumph in the future, and how the public and private sectors might act in consequence, we can assume that both types of innovations will continue to coexist. In terms of centralised technologies, governments respond with various science and technology plans intended to encourage knowledge players and companies to take an active part in the big technological changes in the world. However, without passing judgement on the results of these government policies, one might wonder about the second group of innovations, those whose value lies in understanding the user and knowing how to apply existing technologies to make life easier.
Considering the current reality of our business network, these technologies carry with them various advantages: they require smaller investments; they require good technicians, rather than big name scientists; and they allow the potential of the end user to be used as a source of innovation. Furthermore, we are seeing some highly interesting developments with distributed technologies in manufacturing, namely 3D printers used in the additive process to manufacture prototypes and components, and the Baxter robot for automating processes. These devices may not necessarily reach the level of productivity of more dominant technologies, but they do offer obvious advantages of cost and simplicity.
We are talking here about tools which are at the service of everyday people. At first they might only be within the realm of skilled operators, but later on they would be accessible to young entrepreneurs and designers with a spirit of exploration, retirees with an inventive spirit, or even technical school students. In essence, these are tools which are available to be employed whatever which way the users themselves choose, and from my point of view, this is where these technologies become especially relevant.
Therefore, it is worth asking some pertinent questions: Can we find a source of innovation and growth in distributed technologies? Are we up-to-date with what is taking place in the world regarding these technologies? Are we creating the appropriate forum in order to analyse and debate these advances? Are we opening communication channels with both users and consumers in order to imagine how they might be employed?
In conclusion, we should not be thinking about the nucleus of these technologies (which might be beyond our skill level), but rather about how to transform our businesses by applying these technologies and how to position ourselves in the ecosystem spawned around them.
* Originally published in Estrategia Empresarial 20/05/13