“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Jurassic Park”
We’re all about innovation and disruption now. Everyone wants to make a billion and be the next Silicon Valley unicorn. In America, if we can do it, we should do it – before someone else does it and gets rich instead of us – and hang the consequences.
Historically, the Western (i.e., Anglo-American) economic model has seen scientific and technological progress as desirable, inevitable, and ultimately to the benefit of everyone. As the current political situation has brought to our attention, with the possible exception of the polio vaccine, any disruptive process or technology usually has losers as well as winners.
Still, it’s worth considering the assumptions here. Are innovation and progress inevitable and inexorable? Is efficiency sufficient to drive disruption? Should that efficiency be sought without consideration of consequences?
Let’s consider a few scenarios and their consequences below:
1. Innovation is Technically Inevitable
The example here is the autonomous car. “Inevitable” may seem like a debatable condition, but it’s applicable. We’re not going to stop developing technology, and as we do so, there’s a natural progression of improved safety features in cars. First we had bumpers and seat belts. Then we added air bags and anti-lock brakes. After adding automatic brakes, lane guidance, automatic parallel parking, and rear collision detection devices, we’ve gone a long way towards a self-driving car.
There are two kinds of consequences that come from this innovation. There are proximate consequences. For instance, cars are safer – and will be less expensive to operate. Traffic may even move more smoothly. A car doesn’t necessarily need a licensed driver. But someone still has to guarantee the car’s safety in the form of insurance. So far, companies like Google have recognized the need to tackle the insurance question – at least to get the technology rolling, but the social consequences are being noted only as a selling point to the innovation.
There are also remote consequences. Taxi drivers and body shop workers, for example, may be out of a job. Maybe also traffic cops. And, as is often the case with innovation, innovators tend to ignore the remote consequences.
2. Innovation is not Inevitable, but Improves Economic Efficiency
This is the sharing economy model. (Note that I do not consider improved economic efficiency to imply inevitability: we are subject to plenty of economic inefficiencies that have yet to bow to any kind of technology.)
Taking the example of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, their proximate consequences include the creation of a new entry in the transportation services available to consumers, along with an alternative employment model. Both offer improvements to prior economic models, the basis of which was (in most cities) a model of constrained supply.
The remote consequences, however, have not only been shrugged off by the innovators, they’ve been actively fought. City ordinances and state laws regulate taxi services, and any objective view has to consider ride-sharing services as a form of taxi services. Similarly, apartment sharing services (like AirBnB) are clearly a form of hotel or housing rental, both of which are typically regulated based on their social implications. In all these cases, the providers have argued that the laws do not apply to them. The next stage will be the determination of whether an Uber or Lyft driver is technically an employee or an independent contractor, which will come with massive implications similar in scale to those of the 1996 lawsuit against Microsoft regarding temporary employees.
Nevertheless, the innovations are now in common use.
3. Technological Efficiency Does not Need to Couple with Economic Efficiency
The example here is that of the debate over whether to establish a cashless society (in particular, it came to my attention with regards to Sweden, where around 95% of consumer transactions are already cashless, but it’s applicable to the general case as well).
In this case, one of the proximate consequences is the basic inefficiency in cash transactions and cash handling, but the benefit often promoted is the reduction of crime. In the end, any crime for the purposes of financial gain becomes trackable if all monetary movements are electronic.
The remote consequences, however, are numerous. Swedish detractors of the cashless society note the lost jobs (armored car company employees, for instance), but generally those are few enough that the social cost is not a major issue, nor is the improvement in economic efficiency that compelling.
The greater consequence by far is the hold that it gives governments and financial institutions over consumers. One could argue the creation of an untraceable form of currency (such as BitCoin), but even creating things like gift cards (a form of currency replacement) just makes the chain to follow a little longer: at some point, somebody had to buy the gift card with an electronic transaction.
All of these concerns are part of a significant debate over adoption of the innovation. Perhaps if the economic efficiency were more compelling, there would not be much debate. On the other hand, while orderly and homogeneous Sweden might be willing to trust its government and banks, it’s hard to believe that Americans would permit the complete elimination of cash, no matter how much money it would seem to save us. We can’t even get rid of the penny, and that’s not even a matter of personal freedom.
4. Technology is not Inevitable, but Technical and Economic Efficiency are Clear
The case here is the development of the standard-size shipping container, an innovation kicked off in the 1950s that exploded to ubiquity in the 1990s.
The proximate consequences are clear: it vastly improves transportation efficiency in time and cost. Transport loading and unloading is tremendously reduced, taking to the next level some of the innovations of the 19th century (such as treating commodities like grain as bulk products rather than the contents of individually branded sacks). One reckoning by the Economist magazine is that containerized shipping has been more valuable to global trade than fifty years of trade agreements.
The remote consequences have been basically ignored. Any consideration of the impact on freight handlers and longshoremen is now long in the past. We have also put off any worries about the fact that an abandoned shipping container is basically an indestructible, standard-sized object of hazardous waste. Like the benefit of steam power and electricity, the benefits were simply too significant for us to ignore.
What Did we Learn from These Technological Innovation Examples?
In short, the more compelling the efficiency or the more inevitable the technological change, the less consideration has been given to the consequences. When the perceived value is sufficiently compelling, the innovation proceeds without any concern about the consequences at all.
And what does that mean for those who are not currently inventing global, game-changing technology?
This is applicable to smaller projects as well, not just massive game-changing innovations. Every project has consequences – remember, consequences can be good as well as bad – and the project should collect a list of them with as much thought as any risk mitigation plan. Impacts should be anticipated and categorized, with an assessment made of whether any action should be taken against them.
Ultimately, a responsible project manager makes sure that recognition of consequences is a part of a project’s business case and its deployment plan.