The future of innovation will continue to be based on information and communications technologies (ICT), in large part because ICT is our era’s “general purpose technology.”
Over the last 200 years, innovation has been driven in periodic waves by "general purpose technologies.” These GPTs have three characteristics. First, they are pervasive in that they end up being used by most sectors. Second, their performance and price improve over time, sometimes quite dramatically. And third, they are at the core of a whole series of innovations in new products, processes, business models and markets.
In the past, different technologies, like the steam engine, railroads, electricity and the internal combustion engine, served as GPTs. Most recently, before today’s ICT revolution, materials technologies served as the dominant GPT and underpin innovation in a wide variety of sectors. Plastics gave us more durable and easy-to-use materials. Cars and appliances depended on low-cost steel. Aluminum enabled jet aviation. Breakthroughs in chemistry provided us with better drugs, household products, and clothing.
Today, however, the materials revolution has largely achieved its promise, particularly in developed nations, and relatively few innovations rely on materials technologies. Certainly many advances in the IT revolution depend on hardware innovations made possible by continued advancement in materials technology, but these improvements are not manifest in the physical nature of these devices but rather in their functional performance. Thus the value found in microprocessors has less to do with physical properties like size and weight, and more to do with functional properties, such as the number of instructions processed per second.
As a result, it is now the “digital information revolution” that is driving innovation and enabling billions of people to live better lives. The materials revolution produced lifesaving vaccines, but the digital information revolution is enabling the creation of a rapid learning network to enable our global health care system to quickly find out what treatments work best and which don’t. The materials revolution produced the automobile and the highway system, but the digital information revolution is creating intelligent transportation systems and is letting us “digitally travel” through telecommuting and teleconferencing. The materials revolution produced the telephone, but the digital information revolution is allowing ubiquitous communication from a wide range of devices and places. The materials revolution produced the electricity grid, but it is the IT revolution that is producing the intelligent “green” grid.
In other words, the digital information revolution is not likely to produce a world that looks significantly different than the world of the recent past. But it is producing a world that functions in radically different and better ways, with individuals and organizations able to access and use a vast array of information to improve their lives and society. Indeed, after 5,000 years of civilization, we are only now moving from a relative inert and obtuse world to a one that will be intelligent and “alive with information.” And in this world a vast array of opportunities for new products, services and business models will be enabled by the ICT revolution and the drive to create an intelligent world.
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