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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nhoeller's picture

The Business Implications of Emerging Technologies

MIT Technology Review recently published the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) article From Big Bets to Building Blocks that complements Arthur's 'web of technology' ideas but from a business perspective.  According to PwC, businesses have a tendency to focus on popular technologies and rely on information sources that focus solely on technological factors.  Businesses often underestimate the business costs, the maturity of enabling technology and the rate at which emerging technologies change.  As a result, emerging technologies may end up as standalone or isolated initiatives, relegated to the R&D group. 

PwC recommends that businesses view technology in terms of how they can be integrated into business strategy, starting with the key trends affecting the business and assessing the business impact of different technologies.  The next step is to identify synergies among technologies, processes and business models, forming 'building blocks' that deliver clear value to the business.  Often these building blocks can be implemented in a staged manner, reducing risk and allowing businesses to identify unexpected interactions.

In terms of biom*, the article suggests we should focus on business needs and impact, rather than leading with biomimetic solutions.  If a biomimetic solution is appropriate for a specific business, can the solution be implemented?  Are enabling technologies available and at an appropriate level of technology readiness?   How disruptive is the biomimetic solution to existing business processes, suppliers and customers?  Can the biomimetic solution be implemented in a staged fashion, delivering early wins to help build momentum?


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