The radical shift from technology dystopia to systems innovation
Jeremy’s article on Technology — utopia, dystopia or both triggered discussion in our think tank about industrial decline. I think we are going to write a whole book about it. The future of work, productivity, and growth is a fascinating topic. I am still interested in finding out if our group has basic agreement on where we are now:
- Are we in technical stagnation following a burst of innovation in the 20th century?
- Or are we in “digital disruption” where there are abundant opportunities and the main economic problem is just to stay agile, grab opportunities, and redistribute the proceeds?
The compromise position is that both things are happening at the same time. I started to insert a radical version of this compromise position into Jeremy’s already radical article. It starts with his description of a shift in epochs from automation of industrial production to automation of the mind. It’s possible that we can describe this as a shift from “invention” of individual things, to innovation in systems. For example, a startup would view a drone as an invention. As practiced by Amazon, a drone is a component of a retailing and logistics system. Invention shows up in the economic statistics eventually as an exponential increase in widget production. It’s possible that systemic innovation can show up in economic statistics as a decrease in production, because all parts of the system are used more efficiently.
This is the macro version of my “Apex” hypothesis that big companies have more ways to optimize their components. It’s an “optimistic” scenario because it implies that as we run off the end of industrial invention (creating the stagnation we see now in advanced industrial countries), we move to a new wave of systems innovation (which is already visible in both Apex companies and in the resurgence of cities as livable systems).
There is a technique to systems innovation. The technique is to continuously test the system, rather than to hold back for product packaging. We call this “integrate, not incubate.” My mission this year is to show how this new form of innovation works. We could position this as saving capitalism. Some may be tempted to laugh at this ridiculously grandiose mission statement, but it would be fun to line up our considerable persuasive talents behind it.