Tom Goodwin: The power of the leapfrog
“The future is here, just not evenly distributed.” This quote by the genius William Gibson fails only in one way, it is often interpreted to indicate that it is the same places that are further ahead than others.
The fact is today if you wanted to see what’s next you would have to travel the globe. The first blockchain powered elections are to be found in Sierra Leone. The most widely adopted digital currency is used in Kenya. The most advanced drone delivery exists in Rwanda. The best government IT infrastructure lies in Estonia, and the most advanced Maglev trains are in China. Romania is first to see tolls and parking paid by text. I had the fastest 4G connection I’ve ever experienced in Hungary, meanwhile the first ride share using flying cars is set to launch in Dubai.
William Gibson’s quote fails to articulate the chaotic and non-linear fashion with which technology moves. Technology doesn’t smoothly sweep like a movement outwardly, and if it did it would now be more likely to move out from Shanghai or Stockholm than San Francisco. It haphazardly leaps, seemingly randomly, yet often based on the business dynamics and the gap between what’s possible and what exists. It’s far easier to find a reason to build a 4G cellular network, when there is no existing infrastructure than it is to create a commercial imperative to upgrade from something that’s currently working. It’s far more likely to make a commercial model to build dedicated high-speed rail than to upgrade existing train lines that kind of work. It’s easier to have the best in class data governance without a legacy of mainframe systems that are just about working.
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The world runs on a patchwork of legacy systems that are entirely forgivable and understandable but not fit for today
Many aspects of life are essentially paradigms. We have moved through the paradigm of local stores, to large city center department stores, then out of town big box retail. The next one seems likely to be online delivery with last mile delivery infrastructure. We had the era of horses, then the era of the petrol engine, next the era of electrical cars, and currently the beginning of an era of self-driving cars, along with mobility as a service summoned by apps.
It is the nations and companies that build most confidently and aggressively in the old paradigm that face the greatest threats to change. America is a monument to enthusiastic development during a prior paradigm. Its airports were built spectacularly for an pre-security check world. Its sprawling cities were built on the assumption of an endless supply of cheap gasoline. Its shopping malls were built without anticipation of the internet, while its offices have been molded perfectly for the cubical culture of the 1960’s.
Record labels were perfect for the needs of record recording, printing and marketing of the pre -internet world, but now find it harder to add value in the digital age. Newspapers can’t retool quickly for an era where news is about shareabilty rather than building a subscription base. It’s typically companies that succeeded in an old paradigm that face the greatest challenges. It’s the stores that did so well they own vast tracts of real estate that are more likely to suffer than those with less success to hamper change. It is easier to go from a small combustion engine driven car company to electric than one that’s just invested in a new engine plant.
One of the more interesting questions you can ponder is what the world would look like if it was built today. Would we own cars or instead try to invest in ride share services? Would we have a rail network, or one made from Hyperloops? Would we have terrestrial 4G towers or hope for something more like Google Loon? Would we use cash or use digital wallets on our phones? Would we use them to pay benefits directly to people and use face scanning technology as our Single IDs?
Would we build public libraries or just ensure everyone had the internet and training on how to use it? Would we still have toll booths on roads, passports, and printed tickets for events or would we use digital alternatives exclusively?
In the US we watch television though TV sets on channels provided by cable TV stations that feed into bulky, expensive set top boxes in high definition. Yet my iPhone, 45 times smaller and 16 times lighter, can stream video from anywhere in the world with four times greater resolution via 4G.
The world runs on a patchwork of legacy systems that are entirely forgivable and understandable but not fit for today. It’s amazing to think what life would look like if we started from scratch today with the technology currently available to us.
Tom Goodwin is Zenith Media's executive vice president and head of innovation. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book Digital Darwinism.