Innovations often involve combinations of technologies. Last time, I wrote about how an infrastructure or platform might inspire the creative additions of new technologies as a broader public, including users, begins to gain access. I also mentioned how high impact innovations emerge when complementary technologies are brought together.
Another spur to combinations, work on specific, likely ideas (such as adding sounds to film), was described in modest terms, but this provides more opportunities when applied to Big Ideas. An epic venture, such as putting a person on the moon, can lead to extensive, directed investment in several technologies simultaneously. This can reveal new opportunities and synergies that otherwise might remain hidden. The Apollo program advanced materials science while promoting miniaturization and hardening of components.
Less obviously, work aimed at monitoring the health of astronauts in real time brought together analytical devices and medicine in ways that enabled and promoted the kind of routine intensive care unit data-gathering we see today. Not incidentally, better data on patient well-being has reached into new areas that have made devices like pacemakers possible and have provided support networks that allow the elderly to stay in their own homes.
While many of the approaches to assembling technologies in the last blog provide, in the main, incremental improvements, moonshot approaches (working in the right context) often provide transformational benefits that reach across decades.
We have urgent challenges that could lead to Big Ideas and moon shots, provided they are articulated in the right way. Certainly, with the massive urbanization of all the world’s population, new solutions for city designs could lead to moonshots (whether as part of establishing national pride or in response to urgent needs, such as a disaster). Growing requirements for advanced education and training for employment also might point toward areas with potential. And, of course, limits to resources and concerns about the environment could, if focused appropriately, inspire big, complex programs that bring together technologies in unexpected and advantageous ways.
On a social level, we already have ventures that have the potential of becoming moonshots for this generation. For instance, some of the investments in brain research — combining advanced computing hardware, creative combinations of software, analysis of the activity of living brains in specific situations, emerging capabilities in interfacing electronic and biological materials, and even control of artificial limbs and other devices through thoughts – promise the possibility of mingling diverse technologies, and thus finding new value as they push forward together.
Of course, simply working under the aegis of “understanding the brain” might not provide enough focus. Something more, like a drive to directly access information from computers as readily as we can recognize a face or find a path across a crowded room, might be closer to providing conditions to enhance and integrate disparate technologies.
It may be that the primary obstacle to any such ambitious program is a lack of will. Having a reason to bring together creativity, imagination, and attention for a period of years and finding a way to make this compelling to enough people so that it doesn’t founder and so inevitable mistakes and tragedies are accepted would not be easy without first seeing a revival of an adventurous Zeitgeist.
Oddly enough, it may be recreation or contests that inspire the most powerful new combinations of technologies. Putting hotels in exotic places (in space, deep under the ocean, or in Antarctica) might open a new frontier, or we may find rich opportunities by finding ways to allow people to participate in a virtual event (a worldwide performance, a holodeck Olympics, or a walk through an Egyptian pyramid). There have been competitions for creating a space elevator and a proposed reality program based on colonizing Mars. Perhaps, in the end, our playfulness rather than our fears will take us to the next horizon.