Wanted: megatrend technology innovators

Needs of developing economies demand not only vision, but a rethinking of long-held assumptions

From where will the next disruptive innovations in IT come? And who’s out there looking at the big picture, incubating the IT solutions we’ll need 20, 30, or even 50 years from now?

In our increasingly short-term-performance-oriented lives, it’s surprising to come across an article like the one I did this morning about an 84-year-old man who’s spent four decades pursuing a technological pipe dream -- only to have it pay off right at the end.

The man, Stanford R. Ovshinsky, spent all that time designing a huge machine that would manufacture large rolls of silicon-based photovoltaic roofing material to efficiently harness solar power, according to the Wall Street Journal. But he and his investors were frustrated for decades, because solar power wasn’t economical and potential customers decided to use other technologies.

Fast forward to today. Ovshinsky’s machine has been built and is working overtime to meet huge demand, especially from Europe, where carbon emissions caps have jump-started alternative energy usage.

A few things struck me about this story. One is the long-term persistence of disruptors. Who are the Ovshinsky equivalents in IT, nursing a contrarian idea for decades that might ultimately have a huge impact? Another thing: Although Ovshinsky is American, his most important demand driver was Europe, especially Germany, which because of its low sunlight levels gets greater benefits from the specific type of photovoltaic receptors Ovshinsky pioneered. Don’t be surprised if the next big IT disruptions are driven by global market demand, which may not look the same as U.S. demand.

Finally, the article reminded me that big innovators need vision; they need to be looking at the big challenges. Ovshinsky saw decades ago that the world would need this kind of power. IT innovators trying to create huge disruptions would do well to constantly remind themselves of the megatrends, the big picture.

For example, a recent report by Gartner, “U.S. Population Reaches 300 Million,” identifies key challenges posed by that growth, such as health care and resource consumption, that IT will be central to surmounting. Gartner says remote sensing and monitoring technologies, for example, will be key to supporting future population growth. Whether to care for patients or the elderly, or to make sure water supplies are being used efficiently, let’s hope some naïve but persistent Ovshinsky Jr. is already at work on the next big remote monitoring breakthrough.

A related Gartner report, “Emerging Trends Drive Disruptive Innovation,” asserts that IT solutions engineered for developing economies will disrupt established markets, contrary to the usual reverse pattern. This report, says that learning how to serve the poorest consumers forces companies to fundamentally rethink and re-engineer products and the whole design process.

Though the examples Gartner cites are a little thin -- the MIT $100 laptop concept and a mobile Wi-Fi e-mail application for remote Cambodian villages -- the concept is right on. In my discussions with IT execs I constantly hear that expanding into emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China requires creativity and a fundamental rethinking of all assumptions, blowing away the “how we’ve always done it” mentality. Hopefully, the resulting IT innovations won’t take four decades to reap benefits for the United States. But if they do, all the more reason to get started right away.