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Paul Saffo: Change Comes in Waves

May 5, 2009

Paul Saffo: Change Comes in Waves

One of Saffo's most interesting perspectives is that innovation moves in phases. New scientific discoveries come in waves, and following these discoveries you have new technological applications that change everything. Chemistry innovations in the very early part of the 20th Century led to new giant companies like IG Farben and others. Then physics, in the second or third decade, and then electronics (or IT), in the 1950s. This is the scientific discovery that has shaped the entrepreneurial landscape over the last several decades. Now, we're seeing big discoveries in biology. And of course these industries overlap. The structure of DNA was understood in 1954, then the human genome project came fifty years later, and the biotechnology revolution is starting to happen.

Each wave of new science creates new technological possibilities, but also changes our own perspective about reality and how the world works. He had some interesting illustrations of biomimetics - using biological learning to create new products and technologies. For instance, Geckos cling to walls based on nano-filaments of hairs that actually tap the weak nuclear force to adhere to surfaces, and there are new products now based on this, or being considered - like bandaids that don't require adhesives, etc.

In fact, for about $5000, Saffo says you can now buy everything you need, on E-Bay, to create your own organism in your kitchen. It's harder than people realize, but it's not impossible. And it will change the way we think about the world, which means we'll discover even more new ideas. He said it takes about 20 years to go from scientific discovery to technological takeoff.
Look for indicators, Saffo said. Technology that's very promising now is the sensor business - RFID, accelerometers, etc. In the 80s we created cheap microprocessors giving us cheap computers. In the 90's the laser diode made connecting computers easier and easier, and communicating with others. But now we have sensors - and sensor technology allows us to create ROBOTS.

The Roomba vacuum cleaner is not technically a robot, but just an automated machine. Nevertheless, people think of it as a robot, and stats show that 2/3 of owners give their Roombas names! The whole "robot thing" is going to lift off soon.

Robots will soon be safer drivers than people. One prediction: By 2030, half or more of all vehicle miles will be driven by robots. Think of all the commercial opportunities here - cars picking you up when you want, rather than you having to garage and park your own car. New business models are very likely with robotically driven automobiles!

Henry Ford used black paint for the Model T because it was the most efficient. Black lacquer dried more quickly than any other color! And, after WWII, industry became more consumer focused BECAUSE they were already so efficient that they could produce more goods and services than people needed. This was the end of the Industrial Economy and the beginning of the Consumer Economy. A phase transition in our society.

Instead of the time clock and the assembly line, the new symbols of the Consumer Economy were the charge card and the television ad.

Well, Saffo says that the Consumer Economy ended in September 2008 with the financial meltdown. It's over, he says. People will no longer just keep buying more and more and more. Instead, the Consumer Economy is being replaced by what Saffo calls the "Creator Economy." We are, increasingly, all of us economic agents who in the course of our day are creating things as well as consuming things. YouTube, facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, etc. Everyone can create now.

But (and this is interesting): Google is the real symbol of the Creator Economy. Why? Because it harnesses the smallest element of human intellectual creation, a string of just a very few words at a time, and it has turned this into a massive economic engine. Every time you do a topic search, you create search string, and when this string is aggregated with all the other search strings created by all the other users, it creates real value.

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