At Stanford in the early 1980’s, I had a seminar course that largely anticipated the ways we would adopt, adapt, and even abuse technology over the coming 20 years. Today, many of the ideas dreamt about in that class have emerged as the backbones or sore throats of the tech economy. But what is more fascinating are the musings we had that are still out there waiting for the next batch of Jerry Yangs, Jim Clarks, and Jeff Hawkinses to make them come to life.
If I learned anything in the class – and I eked out an A+ – what we have to look forward to is even more enriching than what has already been solved.
Computer Science 1 had a reputation for being less than rigorous. Perhaps it was an odd choice for a senior who had advanced a bit beyond the entry level in the discipline. In retrospect, however, the content of this class prepared me for the future more than anything in the sleep-deprivation-inducing programming classes, not to mention numerical analysis or other mind-boggling exercises in abstraction. Besides, CS 1 gave me time to work on my tan for graduation.
Most of the ideas the lecturers spurred among us have subsequently been realized by others as icons of the past era, from Yahoo! and Google, to Amazon and eBay, to Symantec and SAP, to Wikipedia and Facebook, to handhelds and server farms, to the need for standard media formats, the benefits of nanotechnology, and the pitfalls of piracy, spam, and online white collar crime. Even the demand for distributed energy sources like batteries or solar.
As the years evolved, it initially didn’t bother me that I failed to act on what this course taught me. I tried developing early MRP packages, but found it boring. Decided Sergey was just at the right place at the right time. And, yeah, I coulda-woulda-shoulda been there when social networking emerged, but I was busy with other life issues.
At this point, maybe it seems like it has all been done. That other people have capitalized on the opportunities. That all that is left is just tweaking the products, services and business models that other people have already invented.
Not a chance. We’ve just scratched the surface! What we’ve done so far has been largely to transfer pre-existing activities to computers (mostly PCs) to make us more accurate and productive at what we did before.
Right now, in Silicon Valley, where I live, technology is really starting to work on what will make our lives better quality. Not just streamline old behaviors. Induce totally new behaviors.
Look at Wii, iPhone or Microsoft’s Surface. These products are teetering on the cusp of a new wave of interactive experiences. Now that sensors, wireless, broadband and user interface technology are all evolved, they are coming together to spark innovations that engage us in wholly different ways. Until now, we’ve been glued to a keyboard and a monitor. We’ve developed our whole commercial infrastructure – high rises, cubicles, ergonomic chairs, mousepads, flat panels, you name it – around the PC. We haven’t even begun to think about what we’d do if we could get up from our Aeron.
If the first revolution required brilliant technical leaders like Bill Gates and Dianne Greene, what is to come will require the best creative minds from multiple disciplines working together. Observe: businesses are increasingly dissatisfied just boosting well-defined functionality at lower costs in evolutionary products. These days, anyone can use technology in that way. So companies are exploring uncharted territory in search of differentiation.
Business leaders have been turning to product developers – the world’s most collaborative group of creatives – to gain a foothold on this new ground. Those who can understand the multi-faceted elements that give meaning to human experiences and translate these into new ways of engaging people will lead the next breakthroughs.
I recently joined MindTribe from Cheskin, a company that guides new product development from understanding people, culture and change. Cheskin and MindTribe both clearly fit the new world of innovation nicely – albeit from opposite ends of the innovation spectrum. It’s an exciting time to study consumers. And technology’s possibilities can leave you breathless. There is so much to share that it is almost unbounded.
From this perspective, it is perhaps a little easier to understand my move over to the technology side of the innovation equation. Consumers are fascinating. But when I learned that the kids at MIT were coming up with imaginative ways to use iPhone’s sensors (The iPhone’s Untapped Potential), the opportunities posed in CS 1 popped back into my mind. I want to be a little closer to the nuts and bolts (or snaps and sensors!) of development to help the next gaggle of inventors build products that change the world.
And I look forward to working collaboratively with other great creative contributors, like Cheskin, whenever appropriate to make sure that the next bevy of modern marvels are not just cool technology for technology’s sake, but products that help us create more meaning in our lives. Stay tuned.