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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Evolution of Technology

S+B: Does understanding the dynamics of this kind of evolution allow you to foresee innovations that otherwise would not be foreseeable?
ARTHUR: It does give me certain qualitative ideas for the future, and one of them is that there will be absolutely no end to the process of evolution. New technologies become building blocks that get combined to make new technologies. Then whole families of new phenomena get discovered from time to time and we busy ourselves with those phenomena. For example, in the 1700s and 1800s, chemicals were investigated. In the 1800s and 1900s, electricity and electronics were deeply investigated. Since about the 1930s on, we’ve been working on quantum phenomena, and that gave us the laser and the transistor and magnetic resonance imaging. Looking ahead, the key question to ask is, “What new families of phenomena are we investigating in science now, and how will those express themselves in new technologies?”

I’ll give you an example. In 1953, scientists uncovered the structure of DNA. Within 10 years, they’d broken the code for how DNA made proteins and they had begun to understand an awful lot about molecular biology. And within the next 10 or 15 years, they knew how cells create proteins and so on. And then, from the ’70s on, that became translated into technologies like recombinant DNA, which gives us the ability to go into the human genetic system and switch certain genes on and off or insert new genes. So if you want to understand the future, understand what families of phenomena are being uncovered, investigated, and mined at the moment and start to imagine how those are going to translate into useful things or means to purposes.

S+B: Would you agree that when you put these ideas together, they add up to a theory of progress?
ARTHUR: Let’s call it a theory of progression. Basically, what people have done throughout history is to find more and more sophisticated ways to meet their own needs — whether involving clothing, shelter, health care, efficiency, entertainment, or anything else. If we’re lucky, we find new technologies that meet our needs better than they were met before. Our medical needs — say, to bring healthy children into the world or to live longer lives — are far, far better met now than they were 100 years ago. We could say that human beings are getting more and more elaborately organized. Usually that’s seen as a sign of progress. Sometimes, though, I’m skeptical.

S+B: Is the pace of innovation accelerating or is technology just becoming more diverse and complex?
ARTHUR: It’s clearly more sophisticated nowadays. Imagine if we were cave people and had about 20 words to express ourselves, such as “good, bad, yes, no,” and so on. There are only certain things that you can communicate with those words. But we have constantly created new words — new technologies — to expand our old vocabulary. And in so doing we have created new vocabularies for innovation. The result is that we can express sophisticated thoughts because we have lots of words, expressions, phrases, and combinations of them to work with. And in that sense, modern technology has gotten very sophisticated.

But I don’t think human beings are any faster at inventing these days than they were 100 years ago. Maybe more of us are working with technologies — there are more scientists and engineers. Maybe we’re better organized than before. But above all, what has changed is that we have much more to invent with. That creates a certain speed-up in innovation, but I’m not expecting this rate to accelerate to infinity any time.

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