PopTech Editions II: Andrew Zolli on connecting the curves of the micro-everything revolution
Last week, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting a contribution from our PopTech’s Executive Director, Andrew Zolli.
Today, there are two kinds of curves shaping technological progress. Their interplay will frame the micro-everything revolution for decades to come – and with it, our efforts to alleviate poverty, build resilience and drive social change.
The first kind of curve is one we’re well acquainted with here in the Global North: the accelerating, upward trajectory associated with many forms of advanced technology. Whether measuring computer processing power, data storage, network connectivity, bandwidth, gene sequencing, or solar panel efficiency, many technologies are undergoing a continuous growth in the upper bounds of their capacity. In the process, they are continually enlarging what we might call the Scope of the Possible.
When we hitch a ride on this kind of curve, the effects can be self-compounding. When the U.S. labor market was linked to the ever-accelerating World of Bits, for example, huge increases in productivity, knowledge and creativity followed. These increases fed on themselves, further fueling the upward tilt of what has become an (almost) perpetual motion machine of innovation. Yet, while dramatic, there is nothing inherently magical about the U.S. experience: stop by a place like Nairobi’s iHub today, and you will see a thriving community of African entrepreneurs and technologists who, like their Palo Alto peers, are busy inventing the future, and with it, one suspects, significant future wealth.
Slightly less well-appreciated is the second kind of curve: the plunging per-unit cost of various forms of technological functionality, which in turn has enabled access to technology across much of the Global South. The cost of say, wirelessly transmitting a gigabyte of data, sequencing a human genome or detecting a novel pathogen is decelerating rapidly. This is because, as the underlying technologies increase their capacity, they also become more efficient, in terms of materials, energy, economics, space and time. What yesterday took a million dollars and a machine the size of a school bus to achieve, will just as likely be done tomorrow in a millisecond, for a few pennies, in the palm of your hand.
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