European founders, welcome to the exponential era
My house in North London is on an ordinary suburban street. Yet only 125 years ago it stood on farmland. Two hundred yards to the west was a blacksmith. Barely three decades later, what would become my home had been built, much of the same brick construction as today, on a road route that still exists, with electricity, telephone and telephone services. water for modern domestic life.
In those 30 years at the turn and beginning of the 20th century, the models of society also changed: women were granted the right to vote, more workers were employed in modern mass production factories and a system. of social protection, still recognizable today. , began to take shape.
What catalyzed this change were three general-purpose technologies: the telephone, the car and the electricity. These were, in the words of historian Vaclav Smil, the technologies that made the modern world. Not just the gadgets and infrastructure, but the way we live our lives.
Take a founder of the day, Henry Ford. Not only did it dramatically expand the auto market, it also changed the nature of work by offering economic security and a living wage in return for subordination on a factory chain. This model would emerge and become commonplace around the world.
Today we are at a similar turning point. Four major families of technologies – informatics, biology, new energy technologies and new manufacturing techniques – are improving rapidly at an exponential rate. These technologies will transform sectors of our economy.
The intersection of biology and computer science will allow us to harness the power of nature to produce new materials and better therapies while ensuring sustainability. McKinsey & Company estimates that the new bioeconomy could be worth $ 4 trillion over the next 10 to 20 years.
In the field of energy, the carbon transition will require a global shift towards the production and storage of renewable energies. Already, battery startups like QuantumScape, Form Energy, and Northvolt have raised more than $ 6 billion for new storage technologies. And 3D printing promises to reinvent manufacturing, with more precision, proximity and durability.
But like Henry Ford, entrepreneurs who rely on these platforms won’t just create technology. They will, intentionally or not, redesign the way we live our lives. Concert platforms change the employment contract, swapping employment contracts with piecework.
Founders who build high-intensity vertical farms, like Mike Zelkind at 80Acres, or those who create virtual power plants from electric vehicles, like Simon Daniel in Moixa, will redefine what cities can and produce. For the first time, cities can have a path to energy and food security.
These innovations, in other words, are spreading into the real world, just as they did a century ago and centuries before. The question is: how should the founders who build them think about these important consequences of their work?
Bigger than you
This transition to the exponential era, where technologies accelerate and force societies to change, will be messy.
There is a dichotomy. On the one hand, the promise of technology and the few people who understand it. On the other, the institutions of daily life, habits, laws, regulations and the people who manage them, which evolve more slowly. I call this the exponential gap. If left unchecked, it will be a source of untold friction and ruptures that can lead to political instability – or worse.
The issues are complex. Decision-makers can struggle to understand them and intervene in haphazard and unnecessary ways. Technologists might have the skills to explain the technical side of problems as well as the pace of chance, providing much needed insight into the debate.
By being aware of the broader consequences of their efforts, startup founders can work to bridge the exponential divide. Like Henry Ford a hundred years ago, like it or not, you are reinventing the systems of work, communication, safety and well-being.
As for the building that housed the blacksmith near my home a century ago, it’s now my neighborhood grocery store, which provides me with last-minute provisions for weekend breakfasts.
Azeem Azhar is the author of Exponential: How the acceleration of technology is leaving us behind and what to do about it (RandomHouse Business) and an active start-up investor. You can follow it on @azeem.