How technology develops – from proto to large scale to small and networked for D.I.Y. consumers

Since long it’s my opinion that we humans and our society develop in cycles and that these cycles seem to move faster and faster. Indeed at whatever timescale you look it seems to grow exponential. Here lays a ginormous problem. We people as individuals can’t keep up with that, because we as individuals can only grow linear, whereas our society grows on exponential. My father turned 70 recently and during his party I had the privilege to make a little speech. This subject seemed relevant. I wondered how our little nephew Jelle (born in 2013) would regard the world in 2085, in seventy years. I also went back 70 years, to the time my father was born. How would my grandfather and grandmother have looked upon the coming 70 years in 1944? To me it seems as if the future develops quickly. Each day another day passes. But that’s sentiment. I think our future is approaching us more rapidly. My epilogue therefor was simple. Carpe diem, enjoy today and above all: enjoy each other.

Our earth exists approximately 4.5 billion years. For the larger part of this time the only lifeforms were unicellular and little plants. The current human is only 200.000 years old, after about 150.000 years (so until 50.000 years ago)having lived in Middle-Africa as hunter-gatherer. I’ll get back to that later. At that moment there were 1000 times less people on this earth than there are now; only a couple of million. I find that hard to imagine. Let’s make some more giant leaps in history. 12.000 years ago we decided that hunting and gathering was less effective than agriculture. 3000 years ago this came to the Roman Empire through Egypt and the ancient Greek. The dark Middle Ages ended in the early modern times – about when Columbus rediscovered America – which continued to the nineteenth century. 200 years ago, from the start of the industrial revolution, everything drastically changed. So far we’ve known 5 big economic golden ages. These are called the cycles of Kondratieff. The crisis in which we landed in 2008 defines the big transition in which we are now. Not ‘sudden’ misery, just predicted by large thinkers. I will get back to this.

So, cycles that progress faster and faster. The drive behind these cycles happens to be technology, which is fed by our intelligence and creativity formed by our large brains (indeed thanks to omega 3, vitamin D and the soft paleo diet). It is my conviction that this can’t be stopped. Our creativity creates technology creates changes that develop faster and faster. The mechanism of technological development – you could say the life cycle of technology – I find mighty interesting. Through information and knowledge these developments move faster and faster, but in the meantime always according to a regular pattern. I am a ‘believer’ who, just like Kelly, thinks technology is a logical evolutionary step.

Grosso modo this pattern looks as follows. An inventor or innovator combines two (technical) phenomena (or is inspired by two things in nature) and finds himself so intrinsically motivated by his ‘idea’ that it has to be developed into a (small) prototype. I couldn’t say anything useful about the psychology of inventors an innovators. With almost every invention you find it is hard at the beginning, takes up a lot of money and time and encounters a lot of resistance. I think this phase can’t progress through ‘the crowd’. What you need is a small professional team. Most people I know quit before there truly is an innovation, and mainly remain fantasizing about the idea itself. The basis of innovation is a “Neue Combination” (Schumpeter). Examples are: “put a steam engine on a carriage and you get a car”, “digitalize a sound wave into zero’s and ones, put them on a gramophone and you get a CD”, “look at the wing of a bird, try to reproduce it mechanically and you get an airplane”, etc. etc.

If an inventor with a new creative idea has the guts and courage to do something about it, then you get to the prototype phase. As soon as there is a prototype, it is important to show this to potential users (after it is patented 😉 ). Often you see a technology is a way to make an application, in which case the application should be shown to potential customers or users. This is scary. Actually this is the phase where the inventor can encounter criticism on his ‘baby’ and he won’t always be happy with that. The general management advice is: listen carefully and judge rationally if the criticism is useful, then redirect. This method is called agile and develops through the interaction with third parties (the surroundings). The phase to a prototype and the launch and presentation to users is by the way a phase that very well can be stimulated by subsidies or innovation loans.

In reality, after a prototype proves to be a success with and has the interest of potential users, it will soon be scaled up from small to very large. But in this phase this new technology is still hardly being used. Therefor the technology will remain expensive, however large it is, and won’t be used much.

A new technology is seldom cost effective, for which reason the main drive should be other advantages, such as quality, convenience, health. This is embedded in the “TOP technology laws”. Examples are the mainframe computer of large MRI-scanners. Relatively few ‘clients’ and a very expensive machine. To develop large and expensive technology is fundamentally a different ‘game’ than developing mass consumer products like Samsung or Philips.

And now it comes… we’re not there yet. Large expensive technology only thereafter gets smaller and cheaper. At university and during my first internship I have worked on a mainframe computer with stupid terminals. Only after that came the personal computers, and by further reduction we now all have a super computer in our pocket in the shape of a smartphone. It was the same with cars. First prototypes ‘proof of principles’, then heavy lorries and finally the technology is minimized through cars for the rich, to cars for everyone, right down to Segways. Technology does not develop gradually, but more likely disruptive according to the mechanism “idea – proto – large scaled – 0-series – minimized – distributed for consumer. You see the same in food technology. First a prototype and a small amount of users (innovators themselves), after that straight through to the industry (first SME’s), that growth to large industrial (like Unilever) and after that downgrade to the catering industry, finally ending up in our kitchen. Examples out of the medical sector are expected soon. There is a rumor that the iWatch of Apple has sensors that can measure and monitor our health. Technology develops from a monopoly of and for few (also see “The Sun king’s Dish”) to a democracy for and of us all. Reasonably sociable, really.

During the last phase in the lifecycle of technology, the number of clients expands exponentially. First a few – the innovators – and eventually it becomes a mass market in which all consumers can purchase the technology at a fair price. Everyone projecting this on food technology, can already make a roadmap for the future. Food printing will fit into that, but also the Fresh Cube and Qooker are examples. The more ‘devices’ and ‘machines’, the more users. The more users the more applications will be invented. Here too, an exponential change. Cool and worrying at the same time. It can’t be stopped. Technology development is like a large organism, larger than us tiny people. And so be it.

Is the objective of all technology to be small and distributed? No. Eventually there are two possibilities that can be recruited as final step. The networking of the distributed technology (think of the internet in which smartphones form a junction in a chaotic large network) or the technology dies before a new disruptive technology decimates the old one. In the coming decennia not only computers (internet), roads and energy (smart grid) will be distributed and networked. This will also happen within the food system. Professor Tiny van Boekel recently wrote an piece on Foodlog about industrial production. Yes, that will go on, the self-food-producing and -cooking society will not return. Then what? Distributed factories working in networks. Close to the consumer (‘making’ it themselves) or in Supermarkets 2.0. Yes, I see a future with Supermarkets becoming a network of ‘small factories’. No more trade or real estate. Just producing close to the consumer. This is where chances lay for high-tech entrepreneurs and innovators. The spring of 2014 formed the start of the 6th cycle of Kondratieff. 

Small is the new large. Distributed and networked though. The Internet of Food is coming (as well as the Internet of the Human Body). A complete integration of a lot of small production (technology), fysically (logistically) and digitally connected. What we all should do is keep moving, keep accelerating and get to it. DO! Little ideas and chitchat on the internet gets us nowhere…

PS Do my follower now see why we gave Jeoffrey of SpinId a wildcard to participate in TEDxBinnenhof 2014?

PPS Still thinking in large and power? Forget it! Oil tankers are sinkable. The future exists of connected Zodiacs, able to swarm swift and flexible.

PPPS Alright, a final prediction. We in the West go to work with new technology and rediscover the knowledge of the old Chinese and witch doctors, thus coming to new health products and preventive medicine (smartness from nature). At the exact time that China wants to look more like the rich West. Ergo Yin & Yang. Two bodies rotating around each other like in a Lorentz movement. I can see it. Can you?

This article is translated from a Dutch article posted on juli 2014

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