EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

2.3 Emerging, converging, disruptive technologies


2.3 Emerging, converging, disruptive technologies

Emerging technologies are technical innovations that breach new territory in a particular field. Over centuries, innovative technologies were developed and opened up new avenues for lifestyle and market transformation. Implementation of an emerging technology involves economic risk, but, if successful, offers a competitive advantage to a company. Some of the emerging technologies are developed via theoretical research, while others are based on commercial research and development.

Often emerging technologies are at the TRL levels 1-5 and require significant research, investment, and marketing to bring them to the commercial stage.

Here are some examples of emerging technologies at various stages of their development.

The following websites post news on emerging technologies and ideas. Check these out - there are a lot of exciting examples of how technological innovations enter society. You may find these resources useful for picking examples for your studies in this course (I keep adding to this list every year:):

Converging technologies develop from the convergence of different systems evolving towards similar goals. Convergence can refer to previously separate technologies, which create new efficiencies when combined together.

Some examples of technological convergence can be the blend of the mobile telephone and the Internet, design of hybrid vehicles, combination of movie and game industry, combination of nano- and macro-scale science in biology, agriculture, and material design, online education…

Unlike emerging technologies, converging technologies are not necessarily based on technical breakthroughs, but rather involve already developed and commercialized technologies to achieve a new level of performance, human ability, societal outcomes, the nation’s productivity, and the quality of life.

Disruptive technologies are innovations that help create new markets and eventually go on to disrupt an existing market and value networks, displacing an earlier technology. This term, coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, is often used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect.

For example, the automobile was a revolutionary technological innovation, but it was not a disruptive innovation, because early automobiles were expensive luxury items that did not disrupt the market for horse-drawn vehicles. The market for transportation essentially remained intact until the debut of the lower-priced Ford Model T in 1908. The mass-production of automobiles was a disruptive innovation because it changed the transportation market.

Check out this "Disruptive innovation" Wikipedia page which contains a list of some well-known examples of disruptive technologies. Many of these disruptions occurred within the past couple of decades, and we can relate to them. Disruptive innovations can change the way people live and work, re-arrange the values in markets, and lead to the creation of entirely new products and services. "The discovery and identification of disruptive technologies require the researcher to think like an innovator and entrepreneur in order to take full advantage of an “epiphany” moment, i.e., a moment in which you suddenly understand something in a new and potentially life-changing way. Such a moment, if properly acted upon, can accelerate your career toward recognition and long-term research funding."  (KSRS, 2014)

Watch this:

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt addresses the technologies and trends likely to have the greatest disruptive impact on economies, business models, and people. If interested, a few other interviews featured on the site are also closely related to the topic of technology fate on market and in society.
Click for a transcript

The screen that you want to apply about technology is not what technologies are interesting, because there are so many that are interesting. You want to look at which ones have a chance of having a volume impact on many, many people, or large segments of the society. We’re going, in a single lifetime, from a small elite having access to information to essentially everyone in the world having access to all the world’s information. That has huge implications for privacy, communications, security, the way people behave, the way information is spread, censorship, how governments behave, and so forth. That’s the primary narrative, I think, today. It changes education. It changes the way intellectual property works, it changes the way businesses work, it changes the way the media works, on and on and on. We’re in the middle of that right now. The one that comes next is undoubtedly biology, that the same tools and techniques for combinatoric calculations, the kind of computer use, analytically, that we do today, when applied to biological systems, has an even greater impact. As we begin to say, “We’re going to take the analog world of biology—how genes work, how diseases work—put them in a digital framework, calculate for a while, do some machine learning on how things happen,” we’ll be able to not only help you become a better human being, but predict what’s going to happen to you physically in terms of your health, and so forth. Everything that we can do to build a model of how biology works, and in particular, how the human brain works, how DNA works, how protein folding works, these sorts of things, is a serious step change for humanity. So, all of the grand challenges, you know, the sequencing of the human genome. There are now firms and foundations building databases of DNA to use, to move to a model of individual diagnosis of disease; literally, you just press a button, the sequences occur, and we tell you what’s wrong. So, the use of analytical tools in a historically analog world is a very big change.

Materials and manufacturing: What’s happened in technology is that a new set of ultra-powerful, ultralight, ultra-conductive materials can now be manufactured at scale. And there’s a revolution, largely driven by a set of universities, around new kinds of these manufacturing services that will change everything. So that revolution, plus the arrival of three-dimensional printing, where you can essentially build your own thing, means that—during the rest of our lifetimes, anyway—it’ll be possible to build very interesting things from very interesting, new materials, which have all sorts of new properties. We already know that there’s a whole hobbyist area around buying these 3-D printers for plastic. Well, if you can get these new materials, you could put them in the printers, and then over time those printers will become capable of machining, mining, and producing these materials.

My computer, my friend: It’s certainly true that much of what we call innovation today is essentially routine, or evolutionary innovation. Cloud computing has been around for a long time, right? And it’s getting better, and better, and better. After all, cloud computing is just mainframe computing in a different way, which is how I learned how to compute when I was a young boy. So the fact of the matter is these ideas have been around for a long time. Is that going to change the world? It certainly makes it better, but it’s another step in the evolution of computer architecture. There’s a new generation of user-interface theory that says there should not be a user interface; the information should just be around you. We have a product called Google Now, which is available on Android1, which actually attempts (by watching what you’re doing, and with your permission, and so forth) to make some suggestions. So, it’s now figured out roughly where I live, and roughly where I work. And it tells me how long it takes me to get back and forth to work. Sort of useful. I didn’t ask it to do that. It figured out that I was going back and forth every day, and it said, “Oh, there’s a traffic jam,” and so forth. Now what are the limits of that technology? That’s an artificial-intelligence question. But it’s highly useful for it to have made a suggestion that would be good. So, I think we’re going to go from the sort of command-and-control interfaces where you tell the computer, like a dog, “Bark,” instead the computer becomes much more of a friend. And, a friend in the sense that the computer says, “Well, we kind of know what you care about.” And again, you’ve given it permission to do this. And it says, “Well, maybe you should do this,” or, “Maybe you should do that.” And the ultimate model is that the computer does what it does well, which is these complicated, analytical needle-in-a-haystack problems, and has perfect memory. And humans do what we do well, which is judgment, and having fun, and thinking about things. The relationship is symbiotic. The computer is making suggestions that are pretty good, they’re pretty helpful, but you’re ultimately in charge. 1(Since the date of this interview, Google Now has become available on iOS devices through the Google Search app. )

Man vs. machine: The race that’s not being followed in the media is the race between humans and automation. And this race is run every day, and it’s a very tough race. So, when I go to the local convenience store, they’ve replaced a low-wage worker with a machine to do my checkout. And that machine costs a great deal of money. And I’m sure it was a good business decision for them. So, what happened to that low-wage worker? Well, their low wages probably did not go up. They might have even gone down. Maybe they’re on part of government assistance. So, what’s the solution for that low-wage worker? Better education. So, in the race against automation, which is the race we’re winning, and which politicians never articulate, the answer is better education. Now, there are some other answers as well. For example, immigration of high-skilled workers; rather, we don’t have to educate everybody in America. We can also get a few educated people from other countries, and they’ll help us out, because they’ll hire all these other people here in America. And again, people are slowly beginning to understand that, in any particular country, you want an unfair share of highly educated people—in all industries, by the way—because in the race, they’re the winners.

Probing question

Which of the following technologies would you consider examples of disruptive technology over the recent decades? (Check all that apply.)

(a) Digital photography (to photographic film)
(b) Recycling technologies (to new resource development)
(c) Residential rooftop solar power (to electrical grid)
(d) Online education (to colleges and universities)
(e) Online streaming (to CD and VHS movies)
(f) Li-ion batteries in electric cars (to internal combustion engine)
(g) mp3 (to the music industry)
(h) GPS (to paper map printing)
(i) Flat screen monitors (to computer manufacturing)

Click for answer.

Technologies (a), (e), and (h) have been disruptive to the markets mentioned in parentheses.
Technologies (d), (g), and (i) have been in fact sustaining since they did not upset, but rather developed respective markets to new values.
Technologies (b), (c), and (f) may have a future potential to be disruptive, but did not reach that level of readiness yet, i.e., existing markets are stronger.

Sustaining technology. As opposed to disruptive technology, sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements and innovations to an already established technology. Sustaining innovations or technologies do not create new markets but rather evolve existing ones with a better value, allowing the firms to compete against each other's sustaining improvements. Sustaining innovations may be discontinuous (i.e., transformational) or continuous (i.e., evolutionary).

Here, we also need to acknowledge the hierarchy of technologies. As we defined it above, technology is a human-designed system with a conversion function. At the same time, smaller parts of that system can be also considered technologies, and those can be represented as assemblies of even smaller components (sub-technologies). For example, a car may be considered a technology within a transportation system. However, smaller components within the car, such as the internal combustion engine, tire design, air conditioning, navigation, etc., are also technologies in principle. Should those be separately evaluated?

Our criterion for what level technology in this hierarchy we take for assessment is the role of the technology as a functioning element of the whole system. Our assessment targets are the systems (technologies) that can have a potentially disruptive impact on a bigger system, especially in the social and economic context. This is because progress towards sustainable development requires disruptions and seeks a shift in the existing paradigm. If technology is too subordinate to be responsible for disruption in a social and economic context, it’d be rather considered as a technical element supporting the main key technology.

Supplemental Reading

Book: Lucas, H.C. Jr., The Search for Survival: Lessons from Disruptive Technologies, Santa Barbara, CA., Praeger, 2012.

This book provides a comprehensive insight into technology development in present-day society. It is not required reading, but may be an interesting source if you have a particular interest in this topic.

Book: Johansson, F., The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World, Penguin US 2012, ISBN 978-1-101-60140-2.