In 1998, the dotcom craze was going at full steam and it seemed like the entire world was turning upside down. So people took notice when economist Paul Krugman wrote that “by 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
He was obviously quite a bit off base, but these types of mistakes are incredibly common. As the futurist Roy Amara famously put it, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” The truth is that it usually takes about 30 years for a technology to go from an initial discovery to a measurable impact.
Today, as we near the end of the digital age and enter a new era of innovation, Amara’s point is incredibly important to keep in mind. New technologies, such as quantum computing, blockchain and gene editing will be overhyped, but really will change the world, eventually. So we need to do more than adapt, we need to prepare for a future we can’t see yet.
Identify A “Hair-On-Fire” Use Case
Today we remember the steam engine for powering factories and railroads. In the process, it made the first industrial revolution possible. Yet that’s not how it started out. Its initial purpose was to pump water out of coal mines. At the time, it would have been tough to get people to imagine a factory that didn’t exist yet, but pretty easy for owners to see that their mine was flooded.
The truth is that innovation is never really about ideas, it’s about solving problems. So when a technology is still nascent, doesn’t gain traction in a large, established market, which by definition is already fairly well served, but in a hair-on-fire use case — a problem that somebody needs solved so badly that they almost literally have their hair on fire.
Early versions of the steam engine, such as Thomas Newcomen’s version, didn’t work well and were ill-suited to running factories or driving locomotives. Still, flooded mines were a major problem, so many were more tolerant of glitches and flaws. Later, after James Watt perfected the steam engine, it became more akin to technology that remember now.