I was reading an article recently about framing emerging technologies, and I came across an interesting statement with regard to convergence between technologies: “It’s very rare that a mono–technology product (or even one built on just two or three technologies) does well, apart from perhaps at early stages of the manufacturing chain.”
We live in an age of new combinations. The concept of mash-ups, especially in software and data arenas, is very much in vogue. And, of course, the technology-based products around us represent advanced convergence of many different technologies. Think of the mix of materials science, communications, software, display technology, energy storage and management (battery), and semiconductors that come together to form your smart phone –not to mention all the elements of infrastructure on which the full function of such devices depends.
The ultimate expression of benefits for many technologies often comes through unexpected and fortuitous combinations. What led me to the question: do we understand much about the principles of bringing together technologies in interesting and viable ways?
I suspect that inventors and research teams often bring technologies together with specific ideas for products and services in mind. Or these, as a result of the natural evolution of products in the marketplace, often propelled by competition. Adding sounds to movies was an obvious choice early on, with a number of mechanisms devised to achieve it before a practical approach emerged.
Or a powerful new infrastructure or platform may lead to widespread experimentation (think of Gibson’s notion, “the street finds its own uses”) that often exposes benefits that may not have been imagined by those who created the infrastructures or platforms. The many applications that depend upon the Internet were not foreseen by those who first connected mainframes in a US Defense Department network. Creating billiard balls out of plastic instead of ivory was an end in itself, but the availability of it and similar materials brought amazing changes and created new possibilities. (Materials science often provides capabilities that are broadly exploited.) Less directly, the automobile (itself an intriguing hodgepodge of technologies) led to the development of fast food establishments, car rental companies, and parking meters.
Some technologies can only contribute when they reach a new level of development and sophistication. It’s still possible to find restaurants where, instead of having fans, mixers, and other devices powered by their own motors, work off a series of fan belts from one large, noisy motor. Such an approach would not work well in most households. (Take a minute and think of all the motors you have in your home, and imagine each of these connected by fan belts.) In addition, all smaller, portable devices that rely on motors would be impossible if this technology had not been made smaller. Making tech smaller, faster, and/cheaper is often a prerequisite to mixing technologies.
So, some technologies come together because they take advantage of a platform or rely on an established infrastructure, while some others are selected out because they best complement higher order devices that need a specific capability. (Cars need engines, but few are steam operated anymore and an increasing percentage is powered by electricity.) There also may be technologies that are added on without being essential. Think of radios or air-conditioning in cars.
Perhaps the most intriguing kind of technology mash up is one where the capabilities are brought together in a surprising and nearly equal way. Combining 3-D printer technology with the latest understanding of biological systems and biomaterials to create a replacement trachea illustrates this and demonstrates how deep expertise in very different disciplines can create powerful results. This sort of collaboration has, historically, taken a long time to emerge because of the level of knowledge and trust required. But it may be that, thanks to cultural changes that make it easier to work across disciplines, along with greater ease of use for even something as advanced as a smartphone, we may be on the verge of marrying more advanced technologies together over shorter periods of time. This will reveal benefits that might otherwise have remained hidden.