Can technology really drive change?

Technology is a nebulous term. What does it mean to you? Is it digital whatsits like your iPhone and Fitbit? Or the product of all of our applied sciences?

In either case, can a loosely defined collection of materials, objects and processes be a force for change? It has no agency, no motivation. It’s not a person or a political movement with a cause.

I believe it can.

In fact I believe technology is the greatest change driver there is today. Not technology in the sense of shiny gadgets and cloud servers, though they’re very much part of the contemporary story. Rather technology in its broader sense: new materials and processes, the application of our expanding knowledge of physics and biology.

How does technology drive change?

To understand this you have to think again about what technology is. Yes, it comes from the application of our growing understanding of the physical world. But what is the motivation behind that application?

It is need.

Technology is a means to solve problems. It always has been. From the earliest stone tools to the most sophisticated gene sequencer.

What has happened to our technology as it has advanced?

It has become less expensive and more accessible. At a rate that most people accept has followed an exponential curve for the last fifty years at least, technology has delivered an ever greater bang for your buck.

What this means is that more people can access this technology and apply it to more problems.

With the cost barrier to accessing this technology having been lowered, people have been more willing to share their solutions rather than keep them quiet for competitive advantage. This has lowered the knowledge barrier that also may have excluded.

Since technology solutions to problems are now more widely available, companies have been forced to differentiate themselves on more than just capabilities or features. They have been forced to make their products easier to use, further diminishing the knowledge barrier.

The result is that it is now easier and cheaper than ever to apply technology to solving problems. To the point that anywhere technology can be applied to a problem, it will be.

Of course when one person in a market applies a technological solution that is shown to have a benefit, they create a competitive advantage. And they create an expectation in customers of that type of solution that others will follow suit.

So, applying technology to solutions is increasingly easy and cheap, and once someone in a market does so, everyone else has to follow suit.

But the changes that new technologies bring in a market are often not incremental, they are exponential. Music retail for example: on staff costs alone, delivering music digital is around a thousand times cheaper than delivering it physically. That’s before you take logistics, retail rents and everything else into account.

When this happens the pace and scale of change is proportionally faster.

So how do you see what’s coming? How do you have the foresight to understand how technology will drive change in your company or market?

You call an Applied Futurist. Or you become one.

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Tom Cheesewright