A hardware accelerator? I like the sound of that!

 There’s a lot going on in the innovation space in Australia, and a real gem is the Accelerator program run by bluebox out of the Queensland University of Technology.

The Accelerator program takes applicants from QUT students and alumni and puts them through an intensive product and business development program over the semester break, which is Australia is largely late November through to the end of February. This year’s teams were all hardware orientated (although many had software as well), which introduces a range of challenges that don’t appear in pure software or business model innovations. However, it plays to one of QUT’s strengths which is technology including manufactured technologies.

There are a couple of really good things that QUT has done with this program, which is getting better every time they run it (this being the second year). Some of those things include;

  • The University increasingly backs the Accelerator, and this year gave it a great space made up of three rooms – a maker space (which a number of 3D printers, Arduino kits etc), a workspace and a meetup space,
  • A stream of highly experienced subject matter experts which come in to educate the teams, with presenters covering topics ranging from IP protection to sales & marketing and pitch coaching,
  • Financial support which enables teams to outsource tasks where they don’t have a skillset (e.g. patent applications),
  • A structured program, which takes them from their concept to a defined product with strong IP protection, ending in a demo day where they showcase their innovations,
  • Post program support for the teams as they ‘go it alone’.

Two other things that make the program really strong are the quality of ideas that they get into the program, and the quality of the people that run it. Brent Watts, bluebox’s Director, Innovation and Engagement takes a really hands on approach to the program and does a fantastic job of driving the teams to flesh out their ideas, both the product and the business model. 
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in this program as Entrepreneur in Residence and it’s been a fantastic experience. As always, there’s heaps to be learned from being part of this type of program, and here’s what I’ve learned this year;

  • Early career professionals that take enter the program on have real passion, drive and commitment to what they’re doing. They really take some risks and commit to the program, and without fail they deliver on their commitments – an incredibly valuable character trait!
  • Most teams start these programs with very little business experience, but with the right guidance and mentoring, they can get up to speed really quickly.
  • There’s a number of ways to navigate the startup process and in this case, strong oversight and good structure guide the teams through to successful outcomes.
  • Startup teams consume a crap load of coffee. Even with some non-coffee drinkers the 7 teams went through over 2,500 coffee pods in 12 weeks!

This is my first real engagement with QUT and I have to say that their drive to produce good hardware startups is really impressive. If you ever get a chance to see what they’re doing with the Accelerator and their Innovation Challenge I highly recommend you take the chance. Given their approach to continuous improvement of the Accelerator, next year’s program will be even better.

I can’t wait to see what they produce!

Why I’d have a researcher on my startup team..!

 As you’ll probably know if you’ve hit this blog, the idea of the ‘minimum viable product’ is a key part of the popular lean startup approach to developing products these days. For clarity though, the idea is that you develop a product with the minimum possible set of features and test that with potential customers. You do this because in reality you can only really guess at what they might like, and why bother building features that they might not pay for?

Building an ‘MVP’ isn’t always as easy as it sounds though. When you’re developing a new idea, it can be hard to resist the siren call of more features. It might be that you think you only get one shot at it, so why put a ‘half baked’ product into the market? In my case (with WineMinder), we didn’t really have the money to go around the block twice, so it was hard to pare things back. Still, things crept in, as they often do. You also need to be brave to put an MVP out there. It’ll be under developed compared to future versions, and it might not reflect your vision of what the product could/should be. So summing up the courage to do something less is a real challenge. Might sound strange, but it’s true!Which brings me to something point that I’ll tie back to the MVP in a moment.
There is a tendency to knock universities in Australia when it comes to innovation, including the type of graduates they produce. It’s pretty easy to throw stones at them, because universities haven’t really evolved to commercialise ‘stuff’; they have evolved to do research, and to teach. So saying they are terrible at developing ideas and people that can be turned into cash (which is what a lot of innovation is really about in the end, right?) is kind of like saying that Australians are bad at winter sports. It’s just the nature of the thing.
In any case, in light of those sorts of comments, I was surprised recently when I was dealing with a researcher who had created a device designed to support a research project. The ‘device’ is only a small step away from being a product with commercial value, but that’s not what they designed it for and they really don’t have the skills to turn it into a product (and if they did, they wouldn’t be researchers). And in talking to them, these were some of the things that came out;

  • They designed and built the project not with ideal parts, but with what they could lay their hands on, and they had the skills to combine into a functional device
  • They developed the device using a whole stack of hypotheses about how it might be used; their driving goal was to investigate those hypotheses and find out which were true and which were not (which is what researchers do!
  • They were keen to test the product with their target audience, to find out what features they’d use and how they’d use them; not because it would make the product more appealing, but because it would answer the questions (hypotheses) they had

Now that really sounds like an MVP to me. Simple, basic features designed to test assumptions, with a plan to test their assumptions and improve the device.

So I think I’d like to have a researcher or two on my startup team. They come armed to identify problems and strong frameworks to investigate them. And they tend to have a strong sense of curiosity which is a real asset when developing an MVP.

So I’m not as down on universities as some. I think they’re a great source of ideas, the key is knowing how to work with them. That’s not always straight forward, unfortunately, but that’s a subject for another time! But if they can create good MVPs that are a step away from being a useful product, then it’s definely worth working with them!

Encounters with the Mythical Man Month

Train wreck “Question: How does a large software project get to be one year late? Answer: One day at a time!”  Frederick Brooks, 1975 (The Mythical Man Month).

I’ve been run-over by the mythical man month recently.  It’s been slowing down my startup, and it’s driving me crazy.  None of the start-up books or blog posts talk about it, but its as effective at slowing down my attempts to get to market as anything else I can think of.  Not familiar with the ‘mythical man month’?  I bet you are, you just don’t know it by that name.

As an example, some time ago, when I was working in well funded tech start-up, a consultant said to me that getting a successful product into the market would take twice as long and cost twice as much as the company thought.  It certainly seemed to be taking longer than management said and that would also certainly lead to more costs.  But twice as much?  No way!  The company had lots of great people, working really hard to get the product out the door.  It had well credentialed management (although in retrospect, perhaps less well credentialed at running that particular type of business) and was very well funded – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

As it tuns out, it took much longer than twice as long to get the idea to market – in fact, six years after I left the company, they the technology has yet to be fully commercialised.  So maybe that consultant was right…

Fast forward to the present day, and I’m facing the same problem again, only this time on a much smaller scale.  I have gathered a small group together to bring my idea to market, and the clock is ticking.  Why is the clock ticking?  Well, my idea is a consumer product, so Christmas sales loom large in the calendar.  I start every email to my business partners with “X weeks to Christmas!!” just to make sure my sense of urgency isn’t lost in translation.  But despite my best efforts to push things along, the mythical man month keeps biting me on the you-know-what.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of the mythical man month, it’s an idea coined by Frederick Brooks in his 1975 book, the Mythical Man Month (go figure..).  Brooks was a software developer and after some analysis he observed that  “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. What resonates with me more than that is the quote at the top of this post which points to the fact that it’s often not the major disaster that makes a project late, but the accumulated effect of lots of small delays.  Fred was sick on Monday, the photocopier was broken Tuesday. Wednesday the courier company was on strike and Thursday the computer network was down… Again. You get the idea.

In my case, the issues are things like aligning calendars, days of delay responding to email, family issues and many more.  Individually they don’t really matter, but I can feel time running through my fingers every time one of these little events occurs.

Is there a solution for this?  Well, good planning and agreed ways of working never go astray. Having everyone signed up to the project and business timelines also helps (going back to the start-up I mentioned above, the challenge of getting everyone to sign up to goals was so problematic, that the company’s internal slogan one year was ‘delivering on our commitments’…). But much like the problem is no single event, the solution isn’t one either.  And that’s where good management and leadership come in.  It takes a consistent and persistent effort to make sure everyone responds to emails (or use the phone!), to organise meetings well ahead of time, and putting some slack in the schedule so that time risks can be effectively managed.

This sort of discipline often gets missed in discussions of innovation, pivots, minimum viable products and the customer discovery process.  But it’s an important discipline to have or to develop when you’re in start-up mode.  Because as sure as VCs will want more than you want to give (!) there will be a range of things that you can’t control that will slow you down.  So when there are things that you can, you’d better make sure you’re on top of them, or you’ll end up being a lot more familiar with the mythical man month then you are at the moment!

Un-orthodox: getting to a new ‘right’

recordsUnorthodox [uhn-awr-thuh-doks]: adjective meaning not conforming to rules, traditions, or modes of conduct, as of a doctrine, religion, or philosophy; not orthodox: an unorthodox ideology.

I’ve been giving some thought to the matter of technological change recently, and more specifically some of the things that help or hinder that change.  One of the things that strikes me about this type of change is that many of the barriers are hiding in plain sight, as it were.  That is, we are so familiar with them, that we cease to see them as problems at all.

This problem is nowhere more apparent than in the electricity industry.  Unlike IT, for example, the electricity system has a long history of development that has created ways of thinking about the world.  A consequence of this is that best practice has been codified, and to some extent fossilised into ‘the way we do things here’.

For example, there is an implicit assumption that electricity systems should use alternating and not direct current to take power from the point of generation to the point of consumption.  This assumption comes from the early days of electricity networks, when the long distance transmission of power from large scale, economically efficient plants had to use AC power to reduce losses.  Of course the use of AC power systems has created a whole range of compatible appliances which further entrenches the incumbency of AC power.  But technology has moved on, and we don’t have to transmit power over long distances any more.  None the less we remain rooted in the alternating current paradigm, for better or for worse.

Another, more familiar example to some is the case of the sharing economy.  Companies like Uber are encountering a range of regulatory regimes around the world that aren’t compatible with their business model.  This leads to great wailing and gnashing of teeth, as the incumbents claim that Uber isn’t following the rules, and Uber asserts its ‘right’ to push the old system aside (technological progress is inevitable, right?).

Part of the problem is that technology is evolving faster that the regulatory regimes that took decades, if not centuries to develop.  And in that time, regulations (as well as other thought patterns) have become so embedded in people’s thinking, that they don’t think about them at all!  Arguments between technology boosters and the old regime then become akin to arguments that pit articles of faith against arguments based on logic.  The end result is conflict that can take some time to resolve.

The idea that differing world views created barriers to technological change is a relatively well established concept, but it can be relatively difficult to express simply (although as Einstein said, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough!).  However, I had a small eureka  moment recently when I realised that the whole idea is captured in the more familiar idea of ‘orthodox’.

As suggested at the top of this post, orthodox implies accepted rules, traditions and ‘modes of conduct’.  So an orthodoxy defines (or reflects) a standard away of thinking that has evolved over time – that’s the ‘tradition’ part of the definition.  But the origins of the word are even more revealing, as its Greek origins means “having the right opinion“.

And there are lots and lots of orthodoxies around technology.  AC power in electricity networks.  Expected range in electric cars.  Licencing in taxi cabs.  Screen size in mobile phones.  You name a technology, and chances are there’s an orthodoxy – or rules, traditions and modes of conduct – that surrounds it.  The older the technology, the stronger the orthodoxy.

A key barrier to technological change is orthodoxies, because you may need to change the orthodoxy before a technology is adopted and that’s a very difficult thing to do.  Many technological innovations are unorthodox, almost by definition, as innovation involves newness and change.  Truly radical innovations are also truly unorthodox in both a technical and social sense.  In fact, this is largely what disruptive innovations are – successful radical innovations that drive technological and social change.

So it’s worth keeping the concept of unorthodox in mind when you think about technological change, particularly if you’re trying to produce that change through innovation.  The ‘rules, traditions, or modes of conduct’ that evolve with technologies can be powerful barriers to change.  That doesn’t mean that change can’t occur – it just means that you need to overcome the orthodoxy, as well as the incumbent technology if you’re going to be successful.  Just ask the good people over at Uber.

Open Innovation – Crazy Brave, or Just Plain Smart?

Lego design

I finished reading Henry Chesbrough’s book Open Innovation recently, and I have to say it makes sense.  But it’s also a little bit scary.  Here’s why.

Innovation is a balancing act.  It’s a balance between creating a great idea that could change the world with creating an idea that can actually be implemented.  It’s about spending cash to develop that idea, with preserving some of that cash for the long and winding road that’s yet to come.  And it’s a balance between keeping an idea secret for a time and sharing it so that others can help make that idea even better.

And it’s this last balancing act that can lead to problems.  I’ve been in a number of situations where the balance has tipped too far towards the secrecy side of things that there is a real reluctance to bring new people in on the idea at all.  Perhaps even worse is the situation where the innovator has become so convinced that they are the only ones that can solve the problem that they actively discourage ideas from others, even within the same company.

I guess another motivation for not wanting to bring others in on an idea is that it’s much easier to innovation in private, where no one can see you fail.  It’s pretty well recognised that failure is a big part of learning, particularly when it comes to innovation, but it’s not always an easy thing to accept that as an individual.  Your competence is on the line, perhaps your reputation and definitely your pride.

So the idea of Open Innovation can be a bit scary.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, Open Innovation involves partnering with others to give life to an idea.  Among other things, this can involve sourcing ideas from the outside, on the basis that not all the smartest people work for you.  It takes a really pragmatic view of the creative process and promotes an agnostic approach to sourcing ideas.  That is, it doesn’t matter where an idea comes from: if you can find it, and use it, then don’t bother creating it yourself.  And you don’t need to totally own an idea to benefit from it.  There’s lots of other ways to extract value from the ideas of others.

Open Innovation is often contrasted with the process of industrial innovation that dominated the 20th century.  In that distant past (!) large corporations owned ideas, from basic research all the way through to commercialisation and sale.  It resulted in some truly brilliant outcomes, but it also restricted the range of innovations that could be created.  After all, when innovation involves the combination of existing ideas in novel ways, why would you restrict the range of ideas to the ones you can generate yourself?  If we all behaved that way, Steve Jobs may never have breathed life into the mouse (amongst other things) by licencing the idea from Xerox!

So Open Innovation makes sense.  Why recreate the wheel when you can licence the idea from someone else?  And you see some great ideas coming out of this approach.  My favourite is Lego.

Lego has had its ups and downs, but one turning point for them was the release of the Mindstorms range of modular, programmable robotic Lego.  When they released Mindstorms, they found that people started hacking the basic code.  Initially that concerned them, but they soon realised that this hacking was creating features that Lego’s development team hadn’t even thought of themselves.  And it made the product better!

This was a serious learning event for Lego and led to some really interesting approaches to innovation.  At one stage Lego would let anyone create a new Lego design and they would build, package and ship it to you.  That was probably unsustainable, but what that program morphed into was the Lego Ideas program. This program allows anyone to design new Lego products based on existing Lego pieces.  These designs can be posted onto the Lego Ideas website and if they receive 10,000 votes, Lego will put the idea into production.

The brilliance of this approach is that it leverages the creative minds of millions of Lego fans around the world, a much more powerful proposition than the limited capacity of their own design teams.  It also ensures that there’s a market for a new idea before it goes into production, really de-risking the product development process.  Quite frankly, that’s both incredibly smart and just outright cool!

But that sort of approach is also pretty brave.  You need to be able to acknowledge that you aren’t the smartest person around (ouch!), that you don’t have all the answers (ouch!) and that you may need to share your idea to really give it wings (scary…!).  To a lot of people that may not sound like a big problem at all, but let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of examples where that kind of openness to outside ideas simply wouldn’t only not be accepted, but it would be actively discouraged!  Even worse, I’ve seen situations where a company actively rejects the ideas of new employees, simply because they thought they had all the answers already.

As always, I try to think how these ideas would work if I were in the driver’s seat.  In this case that’s pretty easy, as I have a start-up and there’s no way I can bring the idea to market without using other people’s ideas. But it’s still a little confronting.  But open innovation makes sense to me (and to Lego!), but sometimes it can feel crazy brave to share your idea with the world before you’re convinced it’s even ready for to be released into the wild…

Coming up with a strategy is easy; coming up with the right strategy is hard!

The Thinker

Coming up with a strategy is easy; coming up with the right strategy is hard!

I was reminded of this recently by a couple of events.

The first of these was a post by Tim Kastelle, where he outlined the advantages of a small company over a larger one.  In that post, Tim points out that large companies can become victims of their own success.  They achieve growth through a successful strategy, which reinforces the value of that approach, making it increasingly difficult to change.  Size also brings with it the need for systematic planning and execution processes which increase that difficultly due to set planning and review cycles.

In contrast, with little to lose, small companies can change direction almost at the drop of a hat.  Without ossified corporate planning processes, they can be nimble, skirting around large incumbents by changing directions as new information and understanding emerge from markets and the product development team.

Of course, this can be a double edged sword.  I have worked in companies that have changed their plans so often and so quickly that staff have never had a chance to add value through execution.  Chopping and changing direction may be all very well when those changes are worked through at the board, or founder level, but at some point everyone else needs to understand where the company is going and how they can help it to get there.  While it’s all very well to expect people to be as flexible as entrepreneurial founders, that’s often a lot to ask.  Flexibility without communicated understanding simply leads to chaos.

The second thing that made me think about the challenges of developing a viable strategy was a guest lecture I did at the University of Queensland.  That lecture was aimed at conveying the challenges of strategy under conditions of uncertainty.  Uncertainty can come from a staggering number of areas, with product/technology and market uncertainty being the usual suspects.  The reason for this is that competitive advantage is usually derived from either a novel product or service, or from a novel business model.

The importance of the former was highlighted in a presentation by the Australian Institute of Company Directors where a novel lighting technology was described that allowed an established firm to take a dominant position in retail lighting products.  There wasn’t any business model innovation involved here, just a really good idea brought to market through existing sales channels.  The strategy was relatively easy to come up with in this case.

Reading Henry Cheesborough’s book on Open Innovation recently reinforced the importance of the latter.  He describes some excellent examples – including some from Xerox PARC – that demonstrate that a novel product without a viable business model (i.e. strategy) can be an interesting waste of time.  A great idea without a business model to extract value from it remains just an idea.

Another idea contained in reading material for the lecture I did identified the concept of competing on the ‘edge of chaos’.  I am sure that working at many of the current darlings of the new wave of digital innovation, like Uber or Airbnb, probably feels like working on the edge of chaos at time.  Their strategy will be evolving as their product meets their customers, and market requirements impinge on how their business model operates.  Uber in particular is striking unexpected regulatory and legal hurdles in a number of markets. The very public face of this process seems to be a lot of sabre rattling, with Uber voicing an unwavering faith in the validity of its business model and regulators voicing an unwavering faith in their, well, regulations. In the background though, Uber will be refining their strategy on a regular basis, based on emerging information from the marketplace.

This type of dynamic strategy is difficult to pull off, which is one of the reasons that many otherwise well-resourced start-ups with good ideas fail.  The commitment to an innovation can lead to strategic inflexibility early in a company’s lifecycle, as well as later in it.  One advantage that businesses based on digital products have though is that they can iterate, or pivot, relatively quickly.  However, businesses that are involved in the development of manufactured products have less flexibility.

Take, for example, a developer of a clean energy technology I worked for at one stage.  They were in the process of developing a product using a small number of multi-skilled people.  They potential of the innovation brought investment, which allowed them to hire more specialised people, which in turn allowed the product to make significant leaps forward.  However, the investment meant earning a return, and the company had to invest in manufacturing capability to get the product to market.  So they had to draw a line in the sand and commit their limited resources to building a highly specialised and expensive manufacturing line, thereby largely locking their design into a particular form – and excluding some other, promising possibilities.  Their market was understood relatively well, and although it was pretty dynamic they knew where it was likely to go.  As a result, they could match their strategy to the market need with some precision.  However, regular the ability to pivot regularly wasn’t really available to them.

Take another example of a company I’ve worked with recently which is working on advanced, next generation medical equipment.  This company has what it believes to be a disruptive innovation.  That is, an innovation that is lighter, cheaper and better performing in a market where the dominant incumbents are competing on old technology.  However, this company also has a competitive, current generation technology in an advanced stage of commercialisation.  The strategic challenge for them is whether to dedicate their resources to making money out of the current product, or divert their attention to the next generation product.

Classic disruptive innovation theory would suggest that they back themselves with the next generation technology.  But open innovation suggests that the incumbents might actually have the next generation technology too, but have chosen to continue ringing profits from their current generation technology before they disrupt themselves.  In this context, the small company can either make some (relatively!) certain returns now, or make nothing and bet the farm on their ability to capitalise on their next generation tech.  It sounds like a relatively simple choice, but when you’re living on borrowed time – or money! – then it can be hard to see through the fog of uncertainty to decide on a path.  And with this type of technology, pivoting is an expensive and time consuming action that can open the door to competitors as you regroup around a new direction.

There is no simple answer to this though; there are no strategic silver bullets.  Good solid planning and rational thought processes are a start.  Deriving an understandable strategy that can be communicated and executed is another.  So is retaining the flexibility (and the humility!) to junk prior investments in an old strategy in favour of a new one.

Perhaps even more importantly thought is to not be so blinded by the brilliance of an idea that you start to think that the product is the strategy.  Choosing the right strategy might be hard, but it remains a core part of any successful business, even in the current age of rapidly accelerated innovation.

Who’s in control here; us, or technology?

Man vs tech 2  Technology helps to drive social and technical change, and like most change there are winners and losers in a reshaping of the social landscape.  It’s hard to blame the technology though – it’s simply a tool put to use by people.  But technology often gets a bad rap, for reasons that are mostly social in nature.

Take for example some of the recent articles appearing in the press reflecting anxiety about the replacement of jobs by technology.  Some of this is being driven by the disruptive effects of innovations such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb which are disaggregating supply chains in the taxi and accommodation sectors, threatening to eliminate service jobs in the process.  It’s hard not to see how this can lead to anxiety and even fear about the impacts of technology on people’s personal lives.

The increasing power and prevalence of mobile technologies is one of the reasons for this extension of technology into previously untouched areas.  For example, the US job site CareerCast recently published a report on the top 10 endangered jobs, and it includes occupations as diverse as farmers, news readers, lumberjacks (!) and tax collectors.

The destruction of some jobs by technological innovations isn’t new though.  The rise of mechanisation during the industrial revolution resulted in a shift from largely agrarian economies to industrial ones.  This has had significant impacts on employment, even though the 20th century.  For example in 1900, 41% of Americans worked in agriculture, but the substitution of machinery for man power reduced that to 2% by the year 2000.  This trend wasn’t confined to agriculture though, with innovation also significantly impacting on the number and type of jobs available in the manufacturing sector.  Just ask workers in the automotive industry.

These industrial employment trends are relatively easy to spot.  However, more recently the idea has been extended into sectors that have been unconcerned with the substitution of technology for labour.  Take, for example, the thesis of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their excellent book, The Second Machine Age.    In this text, Brynjolfsson and McAfee outline how rapid increases in the availability of cheap computing power combined with the digitisation of information are moving technology to a space where it can perform tasks that have traditionally been considered as being beyond the reach of computers, such as health care and professional services.  They also suggest that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States.  Fertile grounds for concerns about the development and control of technological innovation.

These anxieties have led to the prospects of ‘new luddites’ appearing on the landscape (for a good discussion of the issue, see here).  The idea of luddism has come to be associated with people who display an ignorant and naïve opposition to technology.  However, the original luddites were concerned with the impact of technology of the fabric of society in the 1700s, and arguably these concerns are even more relevant in today’s environment of accelerating innovation and change.

The concerns about the march of technological innovation point to another issue; that is, whether technology defines society or society defines technology.  This idea is captured in the concept of technological determinism, which suggests that the type of technology developed by society is the primary driver of how that society is organised.  The idea was first proposed by Karl Marx, who observed that “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847).  What sort of society are we likely to get when digital is the dominant form of technology?

The legitimacy – or strength – of technological determinism is hotly debated though, and there isn’t really a definitive position on the matter.  But the idea highlights the important role that technology has in shaping society.  And it also identifies one of the concerns feeding into anxiety about the impact of technological change; that people aren’t really in control of where technology is going.

Take the more recent example of Apple and its sequence of iPhones.  This technology was developed by a relatively small team of people, yet its impact has been to redefine social practices and relationships across much of the world.  The conduct of social relationships through these mobile devices has changed everything from who constitutes a friend, to how we find a partner in life.  The pervasiveness of the technology is reflected in some studies that indicate that the average smart phone users unlock their phones, on average, over 100 times a day.  For those of us the existed before the rise of this technology, that’s a significant change in behaviour!

The idea that a small group of people can develop and control such important technologies is an equally fearful prospect for many people.  However, we’ve been living with this situation for centuries.  In the case of electric power systems, a relatively small group of people plan, develop and control this critical infrastructure. This is partly because the cost, complexity and essentiality of the system would make it hard to run any other way.  While innovation in renewable and storage technologies is starting to change this, we have happily supported an elite technocracy in its control of the system as it has yielded significant benefits to the individual and society over time.

A concern arising from this is that technology may eventually exceed human’s capacity to control it.  Certainly the trends identified by Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest it is a possibility, and the potential for intelligent machines that start to design and build themselves is a popular basis for many a Hollywood movie.  However, technology is not autonomous – at least not yet.  It doesn’t define and develop itself and it remains in control of people; technology is defined by people, not by technology.

Returning to the example of smartphones, the original iteration of the technology was relatively simple in its application – at least compared to today’s version.  Since that original innovation, people have found a multitude of applications for these high powered, handheld computers, ranging from ordering a pizza, to building personal relationships to monitoring arrhythmic heartbeats.  All of these applications have been developed by people, in order to meet a need.  Collectively they have created an impressive ‘piece’ of technology but in the end people remain in control.  This idea is often lost in the hypnotic impact of each new iteration of the technology, but it remains the case.

This fact is also often lost on the entrepreneur.  Much of the wailing about the impact of regulations on innovations such as Uber and Lyft derives from a belief in the logical progression of technological evolution.  These entrepreneurs would prefer it if prior social structures as represented by regulations – which at least partially contribute to defining technology, including which technologies are acceptable – simply stepped aside while their (commercial) innovations were allowed unfettered access to markets.  However, these regulatory structures have been developed over time to reflect public concerns and standards.  They are both useful and important, although they can become ossified and inflexible over time.

As an example of this, imagine if we didn’t have these socially negotiated, centralised regulations.  Would we have a world filled with nuclear power, genetic engineering and a range of now forgotten innovations that seemed like a good idea at the time?  That’s not an argument for keeping regulation stagnant, but an observation that regulations are to important and useful to be subject to commercially motivated, short term change.

However, regulations are negotiated and negotiable and this is what seems to be forgotten by many in the entrepreneurial community.  Technology often helps regulations and other social structures evolve; and conversely technologies often need to be shaped to existing social structures if they are to be successful in the marketplace.  Henry Henry Chesbrough’s identified this in his book, Open Innovation.  In there, he highlights the need for a useful business model for making use of technology.  He also highlights the relatively narrow window that most innovations have to take advantage of their new ideas, and before anyone else does.  In these circumstances, working to understand social barriers to adoption (including unsympathetic regulations) is a critical part of the innovation process.

So, technological innovation is inextricably tied to society, and the success of one leads to the success of the other.  In most cases, the development of powerful technological innovations is undertaken by a relatively small group of people and the success of their innovations can lend significant power to those people.  But in all cases, the users determine the success of the technology.  This includes how the technology is used in practice, but also the standards, norms and (yes, Uber et al) regulations that define what is and what is not acceptable in society.

So while those people whose livelihood is threatened by technological innovation have a right to be worried about what the future holds images of a dystopian future where technology rules people are some way off.  Instead, we all participate in the development of technologies through our behaviour and use of those technologies.  This is an important idea for both the developers and users of technological innovations should keep in mind when thinking about how technology drives the future.