One thing interesting #5: Leapfrogging

Not all new technologies are innovations. Similarly, a new innovation doesn't always require new technology.

The real test of whether something is an innovation or not is to determine whether this 'thing' has fundamentally changed an aspect of human behaviour. Has it made it possible to do something which was previously very expensive? Has it made it possible to do something which was previously not very good? Has it actually allowed more people to participate who were previously excluded?

This last one often ties in with something being too expensive. A non-technological innovation example of this is in short-haul flights. Companies like SouthWest and Ryanair focussed on stripping the service back to its bare bones so that they could offer extremely low prices. This opened up travel to people who might have taken a lengthy coach or train journey; or perhaps not travelled at all. SouthWest and Ryanair were mostly competing against non-consumption. A good place to be to acquire customers.

Whilst this may be an innovation, no real step change in air travel has occurred. Some lingering inefficiencies in the way airlines were previously operating happened to be large enough for new competitors to come along and optimise them out. Nothing about air travel really changed at a fundamental level. In fact, most of the other airlines are still operating. They probably just make less money these days.

Which is why technological innovations are so much more impactful. Such innovations often make the old way of doing things obsolete. Take mobile phones for example. Prior to mobiles, most of sub-saharan Africa had no access to phones. Landline infrastructure was too expensive to bring to this part of the world (not least the access to a reliable energy source too). At the time, landlines were the only way to do telecommunications. But mobiles changed all this. The old infrastructure could be negated with this new piece of technology. Whilst in the developed world, landlines and mobiles lived side-by-side in a transitionary phase; in Africa, adoption was enormous.

Similarly, this same new mobile phone technology found itself disrupted by internet-based communication. Companies like Skype and WhatsApp helping people circumvent carrier charges by making calls and sending text messages over wifi.

So what other technological innovations beyond communications are being developed right now? One company, Apeel Sciences, is developing technology to address the issue of food waste.

We've all probably heard the shocking statistics on how much fresh produce ends up in landfill. And this is despite all the resources and technology that has gone in to growing, shipping and protecting this produce from spoilage.

What Apeel are doing is fundamental materials science. They are making protective layers - packaging if you will - from part of the plant itself. Their innovation could help dramatically reduce our reliance on pesticides and chemical preservatives. To get a sense of the impact, watch the video below.

 

To look at this from an innovation perspective, would technology like this enable a new way of doing things? 

In many parts of the developing world, a whole lot of food ends up perishing. Without a cold chain, fresh produce cannot survive any journey further than perhaps a local market. This often puts small scale farmers at a disadvantage, economically. The number of people they can reach and sell to is small; as is their time window for doing so. More often than not, this produce ends up going to waste and the farmer ends up out of pocket. The only way, currently, by which they could sell most, if not all, their produce would be to ship it out further. But when there's no cold chain this isn't an option.

With Apeel's technology, the cold chain is bypassed. It is 'infrastructure' that would no longer be needed. There'd be a new way to do things.

Apeel have a long way to go to make their technology cheap enough; and figure out how to scale their offering to reach the parts of the world that would benefit the most. Their founder, James Rogers, explains further in this fascinating conversation with investment firm, Andreessen Horowitz.

Neil Smith

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