I was thinking about some observable patterns in business, especially those concerning innovations. Will record them on a regular basis in this blog.
Let us ask a provocative question – how can we predict the future of products and services (let us call them collectively as solutions) or at least have an idea about some of their characteristics relative to the past. As new Technology Enablers (or what are called General Purpose Technologies) ‘arrive’, solutions move on a very predictable trajectory:
1. They are cheaper or more affordable
2. They are available to a larger section of the population than before
3. They are almost always much simpler to use
4. A solution gradually moves to the point of a problem
Points 1 and 2 are clearly observable. For example, the first telephones were available only to the most wealthy and gradually but remarkably a solution with the same core function is now in the hands of billions of people. In fact more people in the world have access to mobile phones than toilets. Similarly earlier only the largest universities and the army had access to powerful computing devices. Today more than a billion people have access to them.
Points 3 and 4 are on the other hand are less intuitive. Point 3 reinforces point 4. Solutions because they are simpler to use are a reason they are able to move to the point of the problem. Let us take some examples to illustrate how solutions gradually move to the point of the problem.
Let us take a problem – ‘conveying a message to Person X who lives in Y’. Pheidippides had to run a marathon to Athens to convey the victory of Greeks over Persians in the Battle of Marathon. The Mauryan and Han dynasties in the ancient times then developed something similar to a courier system. The telegraph was a solution that came closer to the problem. You still had to walk to the telegraph office. The telephone brought it still closer, in our homes. Now the solution – a mobile phone has moved to the point of problem.
To read most books, you had to go to the library. Today an affordable (sometimes free) library exists on your Kindle or Tablet. Or you can access Wikipedia from your phone.
To access a computing device in the 1970s, you had to be enrolled in a wealthy school or can access one at the university. They were complex to use. Today more than a billion people have a computing device (the smartphone in their pockets). The solution has moved to the point of the problem.
To test for pregnancy reliably in the 1930s or 1940s, you had to go to an expert doctor who would inject the woman’s urine into a female rabbit. The doctor will test for pregnancy by looking at the rabbit’s ovaries which would change a few days later because of a hormone hCG which is secreted only by pregnant women. The phrase ‘the rabbit died’, a euphemism for ‘I’m pregnant’ originated because of this (a misnomer nonetheless since the rabbit would die anyway). Today, you can test for pregnancy at your home with an easy to use pregnancy strip with 97% accuracy. The solution has moved to the point of the problem.
Similarly, you can get information about health issues or side effects and dosage of your prescription from the countless blogs and reliable sites like WebMD rather than going to a doctor for consultation. You can monitor your blood sugar from your home.
This pattern of ‘solutions moving to the point of problems’ will give us interesting insights about the future. A lot of solutions will be available at the point of origin of the problem and that often means at your home. And those solutions will be easier to use.
You can do a major portion of your healthcare from home. Scanadu is a health tech startup. It is in testing phase with a product called Scanaflo. It is an iPhone-ready urinalysis strip that with just small amount of urine knows if you are pregnant, diabetic or have been smoking weed.
Scanaflo measures up to 12 reagents on the stick, including glucose, protein, leukocytes, nitrites, blood in the urine, bilirubin, urobilinogen, microalbumin, creatinine, ketone, specific gravity and your pH levels. The different reagents react to the urine and show up as colors on the stick. The iPhone app then detects these colors and determines what is going on. Basically, with Scanaflo a medical lab has moved into your home! And we can be sure that this is only going to improve further.
Let us say you are a farmer. You have to do the hard work of moving around your fields to see which parts of the field need water, fertilizer, insecticide etc. Agribotix is a drone-enabled software company that brings a solution closer to the origin of this problem. The company provides advanced imaging and analysis for what is increasingly being called ‘precision agriculture’. A typical image that provides important information viewed on your device is as follows.
In fact, the New York Times has reported that the US Government may lift the ban on people using small unmanned drones for commercial purposes. Farmers have already begun using drones fitted with cameras.
Image source: New York Times
Let us say you are reading a news item about an ‘acid attack’ on an innocent girl. Your blood boils. You want to do something substantial. A solution to this ‘problem’ currently exists in the form of change.org which will allow anyone to start a petition and possibly bring it to the attention of (and pressure) politicians. A billion smartphones with people are like a billion eyes. Probably in the near future, a community of citizens may themselves share identification information about the suspects and track them down. Maybe police may collaborate with citizens to track down the accused in the future.
The cost to sequence a human-sized genome was $100 million in 2001. What is the cost today? Well, let us plot a graph to illustrate on a logarithmic scale.
I repeat – the above is a logarithmic scale. And notice the profound drop in costs much further than the Moore’s law! Such a drop in costs are ensuring that college kids get together and organize meetups for what is called ‘biohacking’. Soon, the costs will further drop to sequence genomes from your home.
Take Governance as another interesting example. Developing and underdeveloped countries are notorious for systemic corruption. If a road is in bad shape, you have to complain to the city corporation (taking the problem to the solution) which will take months to respond. A public school may need new lab equipment and it’s request has to go through bureaucratic hell. I strongly believe that in the future a community of citizens would not wait for Government to solve many public problems. Problems in localities may be ‘crowdsourced’ and highlighted on mapping applications and sorted by type of skill needed to solve the problem. Skilled people can then deliver the solutions at the doorstep in much shorter time.
If you observe carefully, when solutions move to the point of origin of the problems, they remove a host of compromises along the way. For example, Scanadu removes many compromises that customers have to make – waiting in queues in the lab, waiting for days for results etc.
If you want an education, you have to make compromises today when you have to take the problem to the solution – a school that in all probabilities miles away from your home, has expensive hostels, a one-size fits all solution etc. When the solution comes to the origin of the problem, a lot of these compromises won’t exist. MOOCs delivered over the internet are a first version of a predictable future – you will be able to learn epic stuff from your home at your convenience.
But such a predictable trajectory may bring with it, its own challenges. For example, people intent on hurting others can also have their ‘solutions’ at the point of origin of their ‘problems’. For example, the first 3D printed gun called ‘The Liberator’ was made in the US by a 25 year old student who then shared the design files and 100,000 people downloaded the files before the Statement department took them down. What if the files end up in the hands of criminals?
The future does look fascinating. How will we work in the future? What will be the role of the Government in the future? How will transportation be in the future? How will furniture be purchased in the future? How will lawn be cut in the future? How will we file taxes in the future? What would journalismjournalism be like in the future? How will people in villages receive healthcare in the future? Entrepreneurs when developing solutions for these hence can have mental models where solutions move to the point of the problems and which are very simple to use rather than that of some science fiction movies where the future is often magnificent and complex.