Home » Archive » The renaissance of old technologies (or the cost of new in innovation)

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

principles of economics, survivor technologies, old technologies, innovation, back-side of innovation

Old technologies have much to contribute to innovation today. For the most part, they are broadly ignored.

The winds and flood waters of Hurricane Katrina pulled New Orleans apart. The city’s modern technologies crumbled. Wireless towers came down. Power disappeared. Paths of communication ceased to exist.

In its struggle to orchestrate a response, the Red Cross begged 500 amateur radio operators to stand-in for the infrastructure that was lost. Using hand held, battery operated radios, The American Radio Relay League, a national association of amateur radio operators, answered the panicked call.

The technology supporting hand-held radio is little changed since World War II. It’s simple. And simple, turns out, works when sophisticated won’t.

Do old technologies die?

Kevin Kelly asked this question in 2006. He kept seeing modern uses of ancient technologies and wondered why all our wonderful innovation hadn’t pushed them into extinction.

“I was often struck by how resilient ancient technologies were,” he wrote. “They were first choices where power and modern resources were scarce.”

Kelly ran an experiment. Taking a sample page from the 1898 Montgomery Ward catalogue, he went looking for each item. He wanted to see how many were still in production.

In his report of the results, Kelly wrote: “It was clear that most of the thousand of items for sale one hundred years ago were still sold now … The underlying technology, function, and form are the same.”

To explain why these tools still exist, he suggests that “most of these tools share a similar story. While working farms have shed these obsolete tools entirely, and are almost completely automated, we still garden with very primitive hand tools simply because they work. As long as backyard tomatoes taste better than farmed ones, the elemental hoe will survive. And apparently, there’s pleasure in harvesting some crops by hand, even in bulk. I suspect a few of these items may be bought by the Amish and other back-to-the-landers who find virtue in doing things without oil-fed machinery.”

Pleasure in old, right things

One of our clients, Tam Tekle, delights in finding old, abandoned technologies. His company is into biocomposites – structural materials made of forest, agriculture and waste materials. He spends a great deal of time in mills of all sorts – but mostly lumber. The junk-yards of these places are humble halls of fame – rusting machinery bearing the proud names of early innovators.

In gaps between meetings or, sometimes, in place of compensation, Tam mines these skeletal remains. He searches for new uses for old things. One of the proudest smiles I’ve ever seen was when he fired up a small, beat-up grinder and worked through a handful of rough flax fibre. The fluffy, small pieces that fell out the bottom were exactly what he was looking for – at a 1000th of the cost and “ten times the quality” of modern alternatives. Perfect for making the board Ikea uses in all most of its furniture.

What is this pleasure we take in old things?

Why is simple technology such a joy?

And why, as is so often the case, are old, rusty versions still so much more superior to new, high-tech alternatives?

Even better when challenged

In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Daniel Snow asked why, when superior technologies emerge, do old ones not simply fade away? Instead, the performance of old technology often leaps ahead, extending its life, and slowing adoption of the alternatives.

Snow called this a final leap technology’s “last gasp”. Last gasps are usually dismissed by explaining how owners of old technologies work harder and find new ways to compete in the face of opposition. Yet, Snow’s work revealed alternative answers. He found that last gasps occur when old technologies retreat into their strengths and when old technologies steal the thunder from their would-be usurpers.

Using the example of sailing ships, Snow describes the renaissance enjoyed when sailing ships first gave up short ferry routes to steam-powered ships. Ill-suited to long runs but ideal for tight space manoeuvres, the steam-ship pushed sailing vessels into open water. Back on the high seas, sailing ships shone. Without the need to carry fuel and freed from the confines of tight harbours, the performance of sail boats jumped.

Snow also describes how producers of CISC computer chips increased performance by adopting features of RISC chips – the old adopted the best of the new.

In our work we’ve seen another source of renaissance – when an old technology adopts a new industry. When my friend Tam started up that grinder it was a grain mill. When those fluffy bits of fibre fell out the bottom, it became a biocomposites mill. Instead of food for animals, that mill makes material for homes.

What survives?

Last year the New York Times ran an article called “Why Old Technologies are Still Kicking“. In the piece, Steve Lohr argues that to survive, technologies evolve. Citing John Steele Gordon, a business historian, Lohr points to the similarities between market dynamics and the evolutionary process of biological ecosystems. Using dinosaurs as an example, Lohr and Gordon show that even though the huge reptiles were ill-suited for climate change, their smaller reptilian relatives survived. Today there are still more than 8,000 species of lizards and snakes compared with 5,400 species of mammals.

Lohr writes that survivor technologies “build on their own technical foundations as well as the human legacy of people skilled in the use of a technology and the business culture and habits that surround it. And a change in the economic environment can sometimes lead to the renaissance of an older technology. Railroads, for example, have enjoyed a revival of investment recently as rising fuel costs and road congestion have prompted shippers to move from trucks to trains; some travellers, too, have opted for railways, along routes like the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.”

Why it matters that old technologies survive

Our recent post on timeless principles from economics generated unexpected interest. In describing Anchor Steam Brewing’s use of old technologies, I hoped to illustrate the importance of principle-based choices. For some readers, it instead illustrated an important source of innovation for our times.

The current turmoil we experience in the market jars us. The recession and joblessness is disconcerting. And for many it drives attention backward instead of forward. Back to things of substance and value. Back to a life more simple but more secure.

Umair Haque recently wrote a post called “Is Your Innovation Really Unnovation?” “Innovation,” he says, “create[s] authentic, meaningful value.” Unnovation consumes value. I’m still waiting for an answer, but I asked if he thought innovation can happen with old technologies. Do they need to be new?

In his post, Haque works through examples of Microsoft, car-makers, and financial whiz-kids to illustrate how paralyzing new, yet valueless “innovations” can be. Valueless innovation is consumptive rather than productive. The efforts to create such products, produce them, and sell them consume tremendous resources. Protecting the intellectual property in these products is expensive. Continuing to refine them is astonishingly costly. But they usually create very little or no aggregate gain.

Old technologiessurvivor technologies – are important because they already exist, work, and add value. Old technologies are usually open for use to anyone. Old technologies still in production are produced for the sole reason that they are effective and create value. They satisfy the back-side of innovation as much as the front. They are big in small ways.

Old technologies are important because they are usually well-understood. When they are adopted for new uses, their previous success is a metaphor for their new application. Their strengths and weaknesses usually translate well. As a result, getting buy-in isn’t nearly so difficult as with new technologies.

But the most important reason for why old technologies matter is that survivor technologies produce enduring value. Producing enduring value is critical for addressing the key problems of our time. In his top ten problems of humanity for the next 50 years, the late Dr. Richard Smalley, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, gave the following list:

  • 1. Energy
    2. Water
    3. Food
    4. Environment
    5. Poverty
    6. Terrorism and war
    7. Disease
    8. Education
    9. Democracy
    10. Population
  • Of this list there isn’t a single one that would not benefit, in world-changing ways, from the deliberate use of survivor technologies. We don’t need new ways. We are so busy fighting for innovation from new science and new technologies that we forget what we already have and why we first started to care.

    We’ve forgotten more than we know: more than we realize and more than we actually hold in the current pool of knowledge. We have enough behind us to solve most of what’s in front of us.

    From world-changing to simply new business, we don’t need to create new business models. We know enough now to do more good than our ignorance keeps us from.

    We care about the issues in Smalley’s list because they are fundamental building blocks of value in our lives. The list is timeless. Not much but the order has changed in the last several hundred years.

    Making old technologies new

    Our search for innovation would benefit a great deal from looking backward as well as forward. We would do well to consider the compost heap of abandoned ideas and technologies. Even more, we should give careful attention to the best paths from old to new – the architecture of reuse.

    How do we *sift* through all that’s behind us to find fixes for what is beyond us?

    How do we plumb the depths of what we’ve forgotten in efficient and effective ways?

    How do we bridge between answers in old places to questions in new places?

    How do we make this sifting, plumbing and bridging a outrageously successful business?

    Outrageous success, it seems, is the only way to shift the focus.


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