Innovation: Impetus for Global Resentment?

Seismic global events such as Brexit, the rise of nationalistic movements, or Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate here in the United States, are not isolated phenomena, but actually have something in common: both appeals to citizen fears. Over time these accumulated fears lead to collective resentment across broad sectors of society motivated by income stagnation, job losses, increased socioeconomic inequality, etc. Daily headlines in the global media identify simplistic targets, when they are actually pointing to visible consequences, rather than identifying root causes or, even more rarely, possible solutions.

In this blogpost, I would like to connect the accelerated pace of global innovation as one of the root causes of today’s painful societal structural cracks, which are exacerbated by a longer life expectancy of the population. Citizens feel increasingly disconcerted by the speed of the disruptions they experience, feeding individual fears into collective resentment.

We can commence our thought experiment by considering the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908, which sought to replace the horse-pulled buggy, the prevailing mode of transport in society. This disruption was as big as any of today’s eminent disruptions. However, its impact was felt over decades since society was slow to adopt this new technology. Hence, individuals who made a living moving goods or people via the incumbent technology (the horse-pulled-buggy) were slowly phased out over a period of time. Not only was the adoption much slower (the automobile took about 5 decades to reach approximately 60% of US households), but the average life expectancy of those affected, or disrupted, by the advent of the motorized buggy, was relatively much shorter.

Transition Time Frame Incumbent Technology New Technology Number of years to penetrate  60% of US households
1900 – 1950 Transportation technologies:

Horse-buggies, or other animals or humans used as power source

Motorized vehicle 48.7 years
US Life Expectancy in 1911 (Caucasian) at Birth M= 50.2,   F= 53.6

at 30 years old       M= 64.8, F= 66.9

1990 – 2005 Information transport technologies: Dial-up modems, Fax machines, Postal Service Internet 15 years
US Life Expectancy in 2000 (Caucasian) at Birth M= 74.5,   F= 79.9

at 30 years old       M= 76.4, F= 80.9

2003 – 2010 Celluloid Photography Digital Photography 7 years
US Life Expectancy in 2004 (Caucasian) at Birth                   M= 75.7, F= 80.8

at 30 years old       M= 77.3, F= 81.8

Table 1: Key disruptive technologies, adoption rates and the life expectancy (M= male and F= female)

Following the same example, a Caucasian male conductor of a horse buggy in 1911 of age 30 would be expected to live to age 63.8. Assuming he would be able to work until age 55, he would likely have another 25 years in his occupation without disruptions. Given that the threat of being replaced by the new technology took decades, it is likely he would be able to retire in his mid-fifties without being significantly disrupted by this new technology[1].

Let’s envision now a more current scenario: a Caucasian male 30-year-old photographer/dark-room developer of film (or celluloid) photography in the year 2004. Here, the likelihood of his being disrupted before age 35 is extraordinary (2004 is approximately 5 years after the market introduction of digital photography), since digital photography took only 7 years to be embraced by 60% of US households. Our hypothetical photographer would be left with about 30 years of productive life before retiring. Clearly, he will need to reinvent himself, not once, but possibly multiple times throughout the rest of his professional journey.

Our hypothetical photographer is not alone in his drama. The transition from film to digital was so rapid (only 7 years to penetrate 60% of the US households)[2] that it would have been very difficult for him to reasonably foresee the severity of its impact. First, this disruption democratized ownership of a camera by dematerializing it: each smart phone included a digital camera, as well as a myriad of apps whose effects would be profoundly felt by the entire photography equipment sector. But the damage did not stop there, since that same disruption demonetized many of the revenue streams of the photography industry, e.g., the copy and print photography sub-industry. Hence, our hypothetical photographer had abundant company. The disruption of the entire film photography industry was devastating, indeed.

Our hypothetical photographer’s challenges, unfortunately, do not end there. The living wages he was able to earn as a photographer have quickly eroded as many of the tools of his trade have been dematerialized, demonetized, and in consequence democratized. This example is thus far different from our example of the horse buggy conductor, who could possibly have continued in his profession into retirement or death. But our photographer has seen his livelihood and living wages at best quickly eroding and at worst completely disappearing.

A quick summary of our discussion can be captured as follows:

  • The pace of innovations is accelerating at an exponential pace;
  • Willingness of society to adopt innovations to alleviate perceived market pains is also increasing at an exponentially faster pace;
  • If successful, each innovation wave disrupts incumbent technologies, reducing them to obsolete status and destroying the jobs of those involved;
  • Professionals of ALL ages need to re-invent themselves by acquiring new skills and training;
  • As innovation and adoption patterns accelerate, the need to re-skill and re-train may occur several times in the lifetime of an individual, requiring a constant process of professional reinvention.

Every aspect of our human activities has been, is being, or will be disrupted over the next decade. The way the incumbents created economic value has changed or is in the process of changing. While incumbent technologies and their operators fight with tooth–and–nail to preserve the status quo[3], most of the time the allure of the benefits resulting from demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization offered to the consumer become too attractive to pass up, rendering disruption inevitable and irreversible. However, a fraction of those very same consumers would become disrupted as a result of their behavior.

While it is easy to intellectualize a constant process of reinvention whereby society continually harvests ever increasing rewards from the market by increasing the amount of economic value added, the implementation of that process is far more challenging. For one, re-invention takes resources, time and dedicated effort. Even if these three conditions are simultaneously met for any given individual, it remains unsolved, the identification of the area of re-invention. Distinguishing technology fads from real strong and durable trends is often hard to distinguish, especially in its early stages, even for the trained eye. All together re-invention is often a fearful and distressing proposition, transforming the sum of individual fears into collective resentment.

Furthermore, governments and policy makers are ill-prepared to guide our hypothetical “film photographer” for his journey of periodic reinventions, because their policies are often predicated on antiquated economic models, e.g., industrial societies. Actually, government employees, due to the protected nature of their jobs, are often incapable of understanding the realities of these market disruptions, augmenting the resentment of the affected private citizens.

Lastly, the globalization of innovation adds to incumbents’ accumulating fears as new unheard players from remote geographies threaten the incumbent firms and the jobs of all those they employ. Those that lobbied hard for free trade a few decades ago, now lobby even harder to return to protectionism with the hope of avoiding the blows of disruption. The often pronounced statements of politicians to bring back old manufacturing jobs is misguided and counter-productive. If China or Vietnam wants to continue assembling combustion engine vehicles we should let them do it, while we lead in the development of electric self-driven vehicles…. But, wait a minute… did I just say electric self-driven vehicles? Then, we will need to address the fears of all the Uber and Lyft drives, gasoline station operators, etc., etc…. as they will all be massively disrupted.

My hope is that I have provided in this post a context for the unsettling reality that many today are experiencing in their professional careers. In my next post, I will explore possible opportunities for solutions. No doubt that in the meantime, we should be prepared to think carefully about the reasons for growing global resentment and challenge our politicians with hard questions that consider the complexity of the issues. Let’s not allow them to get away with the often overly simplistic solutions of the soundbites they propose.

Until my next post – Carlos B.

[1] Keep in mind that in the ensuing years many older colleagues left the profession due to retirement of death, delaying any possible effect to our hypothetical Caucasian male horse buggy conductor.

[2] Taking many casualties in the process. Kodak, the undisputed leader of film photography and, counter-intuitively, the inventor of digital photography.

[3] Performing incremental improvements, which in retrospect often result in too little––too late changes.

About Carlos S. Baradello

Investor, thought leader, and advisor in areas of corporate innovation, born global entrepreneurship and global scaling.
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