Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Law of Disruption

I was at Georgia Tech over the weekend moving my son into his dorm.  I happened to come across the 2011 President's Scholarship Directory.  The directory lists 63 outstanding students and their anticipated majors.  Of this group, 19 were listed as biomedical engineering majors and another eight were listed as chemical & biomolecular engineering.  Roughly 40% of this select group will become biomedical engineers or medical doctors.  On one hand, this is all good - - creative individuals working on finding the cure for cancer, developing a mechanical heart, and keeping me alive until I am 150-years old.

On the other hand, especially in the context of keeping individuals alive into triple digits, technology and social change seem to be operating at different speeds and intensities.  The business writers Downes and Mui have referred to this as the "Law of Disruption." which holds that "social, political, and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially."  Douglas Englehart, the inventor of the computer mouse, has expanded on this with the following observation:

"Real social danger today is that the technology is erupting and moving so much faster than it ever ever ever has in all of our historical experience . . . It's time to start adapting society to this revolution in the technology.  There's a lot of potential dangers ahead if we don't adapt it successfully."

The conflict among technological change and social/political/economic change shows up in some of our most basic institutions and practices.  Some 82% of the people in North America live in urban areas.  This is projected to grow to 90% by 2050.  For many different reasons, ranging from sustainability to economic to innovation to technological, higher density urban environments will be where the vast majority of people live.  Given this fact, it is interesting to note the roles both Iowa and New Hampshire play in our political process.  Candidates have little incentive to speak to urban concerns such as housing policy or decaying infrastructure - - technology is having a disruptive impact on the demographics of the nation - - yet our political process is still stuck in the 1900s.

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