Timing the next breakthrough

Not every breakthrough idea succeeds, otherwise we’d use SixDegrees.com rather than Facebook and Sinclair’s C5 would have pioneered electric vehicles. Our world is dominated by breakthroughs that combine the right idea with the right timing. But there is as much to learn from those good ideas which came at the wrong time and opportunities to make it the right time for the next big thing.

SixDegrees.com pioneered social media way back in 1997 and attracted a few million users at its peak. But without readily available internet access (most people used dial-up) or a culture of sharing, social media was an idea ahead of its time. Myspace moved the concept forward, but Facebook brought it all together and was perfectly timed.

At a time of increasing concern about the spread of fake news, we shouldn’t be too quick to ignore SixDegrees.com and even Myspace. I’ve written before about the connection between exponential technologies and misinformation (see Exponential answers or fake news). A less exponential approach to social media might remove most of its damaging side effects while only making it a little less addictive.

Anyone interested in technology in the 1980s knew the name Sir Clive Sinclair. After success in computing (such as the breakthrough ZX80), he saw a future in electric vehicles. The C5 was an innovative approach that was held back by public indifference and immature battery technology that left the vehicle more akin to a go-kart than a sedan. Several decades later, Tesla’s formula isn’t that different, but the outcome is the most valuable car company in the world.

Having said that, the C5 was a different form factor and perhaps opens-up new models such as the Citroen Ami which could radically change the way we get around our cities. Learning from the C5, maybe our transport authorities should encourage new form factors rather than fall into the “metaphor strategy trap” and assume electric vehicles will replicate their petrol predecessors.

The Ami is trying to do to electric vehicles what Zoom has just done to video conferencing. Like remote working, electric vehicles need another shake-up to get people to travel as differently in the future as they communicate after the disruption of COVID-19. Perhaps the very changes we are going through in the way we work could actually act as that trigger to the way we commute.

We all wish we had invested in Zoom before the COVID-19 pandemic! I have to confess I wondered what the fuss was about when I was first exposed to the technology. Yet now, it is clear they solved a number of the obstacles to taking up the technology. It took a crisis for the differences offered by Zoom to make it a better choice for hundreds of millions of people around the world. At the same time, the timing of the technology is one of the reasons so many people have made the transition to virtual ways of working with relative ease and the other video technologies have had to move rapidly to catch-up.

Unfortunately, there has been no “Zoom” for email. A major part of the problem is that most of the innovations in messaging have assumed the problem with our overloaded inboxes is that they stop us from getting our jobs done. I’ve argued before that the opposite is the problem, email works too well!

However, email has become an emotional drain and, most importantly, an increasing cyber weakness for almost every organisation. A simple solution is a digital signature on each email which many companies have tried to implement but none have succeeded as the take-up has been tiny. Leaving our email in its current unprotected state after decades of use is akin to having left our first home wi-fi router in place with no password.

Another stubborn obstacle to moving our digital lives forward has been the slow transition to digital financial reporting. It’s been decades since XML standards for financial reports have been agreed and yet, in most jurisdictions, reports are not produced in a machine-readable form.

At the turn of the century I told a client that a move of all financial reports to the newly agreed XML standard of XBRL could be expected by 2005. Like digital signatures for email, the idea is right but the impetus for change has not yet arrived. The producers of information still have little regard for the recipients and the recipients don’t seem to be organised enough, or care enough, to demand the producers simplify their access to information.

Just as “telework” has been possible for decades but has been made real by the pandemic, a solution to our vulnerable email and financial information is possible but needs the time to be right to make happen. A major cyber event, or even a cyber war might tackle the former and the fallout of economic disruption could just be the catalyst needed for the second.

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