Implications of "Shoveling Water"

MIT Technology Review recently posted Shoveling Water: Why does it take so long to commercialize new technologies? that explored the challenges faced commercializing microfluidic devices, also called "lab on a chip" technology.  Although the potential is clear and significant progress has been made overcoming the challenges of manipulating liquids at the micro scale, the technology has not yet made the leap from the laboratory to commercial success.  According to David Weitz "It is a wonderful solution still looking for the best problems."

When new technologies emerge, potential users many not fully understand how the technology will solve their problems better than existing solutions.  Even if the need is compelling, the technology may be hard to use.  The article describes how automated genome sequencing only became popular when a sample preparation kit was developed.  Adoption can be particularly slow when a new technology domain is introduced that opens up potential applications that users may not be familiar with.  Sometimes the ability to deliver is outpaced by hype, which can leave a promising technology languishing in the Gartner "trough of disillusionment".  Although these challenges are shared by all innovation, they seem particularly applicable to bio-inspired design.

I have done a first pass of The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur, referenced in the MIT post.  We tend to focus on specific 'breakthrough' technologies, like the steam engine, digital computing or the Internet.  Arthur argues that we should consider technology as a hierarchical web of technological components, some satisfying human needs, others playing a supporting rule.  These technologies have a lineage going back millennia to the days of fire, pottery and simple tools.  Technological advances often arise through new combinations of existing technologies or incremental improvements in supporting technologies.  Arthur argues that technology is advancing at an ever increasing rate because the number of components and combinations is increasing and solutions bring new problems. 

Revolutionary technologies spring out of our understanding of natural phenomena, but only if that understanding can be transformed into principles and implemented in technology that solves compelling problems.  New 'domains' of technology often take a long time before they become commonly used, especially if the needs are not self-evident or supporting technologies are lacking.  Arthur also describes the feedback loop where advances in technology allow us to explore and understand new phenomena. 

There are a lot of details in Arthur's book that I still need to digest.  I see a number of ideas that may help us advance bio-inspired design.  One of the reasons that bio-inspired design may be slow to catch on is that it has not had time to build a sufficiently complete web of components.  The technology web has grown organically and even Arthur has not tried to map it at any level of detail.  One strategy may involve consciously mapping the web of bio-inspired design technologies and filling in critical gaps.  Another may be to hook bio-inspired design into existing technology by:

  • proposing new combinations of components
  • identifying new approaches to finding valuable combinations (evolutional algorithms come to mind)
  • providing new support components or enhancing existing ones 
  • exploring the process by which new natural phenomena (typically from physics or chemistry) are integrated into technology

Watch for additional comments based on further exploration of Arthur's book.  I will also repost some discussions I have had about Arthur's book.  

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