“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” – William Gibson
A materials manufacturer turns a prototype for a poorly-performing adhesive into the world’s most widely used notepad. A shoe manufacturer uses a supplier of IV bags to create inflatable inserts for its athletic shoes. A pharmaceutical company uses a failed cardiovascular medication to address erectile dysfunction.
Otherwise respectively known as the Post-it Note, the Reebok Pump, and Viagra, these breakthrough products were all the wildly successful results of borrowing what works – or, in two of the abovementioned cases, what doesn’t work – in one industrial application and repurposing it in another for something entirely different.
Andrew Hargadon, in his 2003 title How Breakthroughs Happen, calls these examples of how breakthrough innovations are not, as popular mythology would have it, the result of a “eureka moment,” but re-combinations of the people, ideas and objects of past or existing technologies. Hence the reference to William Gibson’s “unevenly distributed” future, which suggests that the breakthroughs of tomorrow are here already – we just haven’t figured out how to repurpose them yet.
The mythology of breakthrough discovery is built around the lone creator capable of conjuring innovative ideas by dint of his singular genius. But as Hargadon rightly points out, great innovators like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison did not so much invent new things as combine existing technologies in new and disruptive ways. Perhaps Henry Ford himself summed it up best:
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it’s inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst kind of nonsense.”
For Ford, there were four key technologies that, when brought together, created the conditions for massive breakthrough: metal lathes and milling machines made possible the manufacture of interchangeable parts without skilled trades; continuous workflow organized production processes in the order in which they logically occurred; the assembly line, in which workers did one discreet task only (inspired, as Hargadon notes, by Ford’s visit to a meatpacking factory where pigs and cows were disassembled into specific cuts); and small electric motors which could be used to power individual workstations instead of having the whole plant rely on a central steam engine to deliver power via shafts, belts, and flywheels. The rest is, as they say, history.
If the automobile defined the 20th century, one might argue that the mobile phone is defining the 21st. The mobility industry has in only 30 years reached the point where it is generating global revenues in line with those of the auto industry – and it took the latter over 100 years to reach these levels. Apple has been a big part of that story. Like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs pulled together several existing technologies to create the iPhone, including Wi-Fi, touch-screen capability, multi-network access (EDGE, UMTS, 4G and LTE), photo and video capability, music, and hundreds of thousands of apps. He didn’t invent any of those. Despite the fact that iOS has been completely overtaken by Android, the iPhone was the template for every smartphone on the market, just as Ford was the template for all of its competitors’ manufacturing processes – and those of every other category of manufacturing since.
Many “new” inventions are based on core technologies that are sometimes decades old. The Lytro Light Field Camera, which was introduced in 2011, is a small, square tube camera that allows you to focus “after the fact,” or to change the plane of focus endlessly. It was the fist consumer camera to do so. The technology behind it was created at Stanford University 15 years previous. Qmilch, a sustainable fabric made of milk protein by German biochemist and fashion designer Anke Domaske in 2011, was based on a process that began in the 1930s. MIT’s extremely compact City Car of 2007 combines electric automotive technology with the stackability of an airport’s luggage dispenser or a supermarket’s shopping cart, concepts that have been in use since the 1940s.
One could go through a list of the most important inventions in history and no doubt uncover similar evidence of Hargadon’s thesis in action. There’s a certain comfort in discovering that everything old is new again.