Where’s My Flying Car?

When Paul Krugman and Charlie Stross had a chat at WorldCon a couple of years ago, the first question out of Krugman’s mouth was “Where are the flying cars?”

Krugman asked this because he knows that science fiction authors like Stross have been imagining the future for quite a while, and that currently impossible technologies like flying cars have long played a role in their speculations.

Like sci-fi authors, if we’re trying to innovate, our job is to invent the future.

But what does that mean?

Bruce Sterling has some interesting things to say about the future – starting with a paraphrase of William Gibson:

You see, the future is already here, it’s just not well distributed yet.

The future does feature some brand-new stuff that was technically impossible before, but, more importantly, the future has a different take on matters that are already here. There’s a change of emphasis. The future is like another culture, another country. We have to come to terms with the future’s language.

The Sterling piece has a lot of interesting ideas about design and inventing the future, and it’s worth a read.

His distinction between brand-new stuff that was technically impossible before, and figuring out the language of the future is a critical one.

It means that inventing the future isn’t simply about making flying cars and other cool stuff you find in sci-fi novels.

We can actually invent the future by figuring out new meanings for the things that are already here.

There’s a great example of what this means in Greg Satell’s post from today:

As I explained in an earlier post, disruptive innovation is crappy innovation. Crappy, that is, because it tends to do old jobs poorly. A truly disruptive technology changes paradigms by doing a new job entirely. (That’s what makes it so disruptive).

It’s also why so much of what we hear about digital marketing is wrong. The discourse all too often focuses on how digital stacks up against traditional media performing traditional tasks. It shouldn’t be surprising that, in this context, digital often comes up short.

The fact that so many people keep trying to square this circle shows an appalling lack of imagination and good sense. The true impact of digital technology in the marketing arena lies years in the future, possibly more than a decade. What will that impact be? To be honest, I don’t really know and I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks they do.

People are trying to define the future of digital marketing exclusively in terms of what marketing looks like today. This is wrong. The innovation here isn’t coming up with shiny new web technologies. The innovation opportunity lies in taking the concepts that are already here, and figuring out a new language that will determine how they will work and what they will mean.

We can’t do this by simply extrapolating existing trends. Nor by taking new technologies and new ideas and hammering them so they fit into existing concepts and frameworks.

We won’t invent the future by inventing flying cars. Which in some ways is too bad, because I’d like one. We will invent the future by taking things that are already here, but which are maybe unevenly distributed, and giving them new meanings.

Innovating language by making new novel connections between ideas is the best way to invent the future.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

14 thoughts on “Where’s My Flying Car?

  1. Great post, Tim!

    I think a big part of the problem is that many people misunderstand what Kuhn meant by the term “Paradigm Shift.”

    They take it to mean “out with the old and in with the new” when what he really meant that new paradigms are meant to solve problems that old ones couldn’t. However, he was quite explicit that new paradigms still need to be consistent with what worked in the old ones.

    So Newton gave us the paradigm of force and motion, which allowed us to engineer structures that we live in and the infrastructure that we travel on between them. Einstein created the paradigm of time and space that gave us nuclear energy and GPS devices. Quantum mechanics gave us a completely new paradigm of energy and enabled lasers and iPods.

    We still need bridges though and probably always will.

    – Greg

  2. Very interesting post, Tim. A good example of disruptive technology and displacement of existing is the growth of mobile phones in places like India and Africa. People talking to each other is an “old job”. Mobile phone technology leapfrogs landline and cable to allow millions more to talk to each other. The language of the job and the technology exist, economics facilitate, and the innovative change in the market happens.

  3. Greg – I think you’re exactly right about paradigm shifts, although I think you’re probably being generous in thinking that people even associate the idea with Kuhn. It’s one of those concepts that everyone quotes, but without reading the original source. Like Creative Destruction…

    Kevin – that’s a GREAT example. Thanks!

  4. Hi Tim and thanks for the post.

    What ever happened to Paul Krugman? You’d think he would know that cars that fly have been around since the late 50s at least. A quick Google search gave me this result: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-06-29/news/27068585_1_faa-approval-terrafugia-transition-converts

    There’s an example of a flying car. But perhaps more apropos, especially for an economist, is the question of VALUE. Do enough of us need/want a flying car to make it economically feasible? Most people would find it difficult to take off and land regularly without a hovercraft, and the danger and noise restrictions would rule it out in many places.

    Often, for many innovations, the technology exists or is within reach, but other factors, financial, environmental or physical, remain to be overcome.

  5. What an interesting perspective.

    We’ll probably never get our flying cars. Not with the clamor for bloated SUVs and battery-laden hybrids, anyway. But rather than keep trying to innovate in terms of automobiles used on public motorways, perhaps it’s time to think about where people need to go, why, and how often, possibly coming up with radically new solutions.

    Like Satell said, “Doing a new job entirely.”

    And kudos to you for the Fifth Element screen shot. That’s a supremely entertaining movie.

  6. If you were asked what your most fundamental needs are, would you respond thus:
    “Every person needs to have food (and water) and a ‘roof’ over their head.”

    But what is striking is the degree to which we take for granted this most essential need. It is something that we will only miss when we do not have it. When did you last think about the roof over your head other than in the context of giving thanks! One could say it is a case of “out of sight; out of mind”.

    One explanation for this neglect of attention is that a roof is a capital investment – unlike food, which needs to reach your table every day. Roofs are built once and serve perhaps several generations. The “technology” for roofs, if we can speak of such, is generations old and the rate of change is negligible. Thus who would think this to be a fruitful place to look for solutions to the urgent problems that face mankind today?

    Christopher Alexander in his paper ORIGINS OF PATTERN THEORY (http://www.patternlanguage.com/archive/ieee/ieeetext.htm#6Y) states that there are 2 billion buildings in the world and that our urbanized or built areas occupy some 10 trillion square feet of roofs. The only objective of this vast roof area is to provide for our protection and security – to assure comfort in our homes and productive working environments. However, in a world now facing resource depletion this vast “empty” expanse of roof must be looked at with new eyes that are open to discover a new method to abundantly provide for the residents and occupants of these built environments.

    Considering that, during the next generation, humanity is irrevocably expanding towards doubling our present 6 billion populations and in consequence we will build more new structures then currently exist. If you accept that building according to the pattern of wasteful and inefficient urban sprawl, which is now the trend, would place such a resource depleting burden upon the earth as would crush the ecological carrying capacity of the planet, then you must share our concern for our children and understand that we must begin now to build living structures – the new pattern that has the power to transform our world and reconnect us with the abundant renewable resources of nature.

    The SolaRoof is seeking to deliver the envisioned living structure pattern, which we call Ecomimicry Architecture. And one key component of this solution is the transparent envelope that bestows to any building the capacity to use its entire roof area to capture and utilize solar radiation. It is the purpose of Sola Roof to make accessible and affordable the Blue Green solutions that are key concepts for building living structures. Briefly stated the Blue denotes “water working” and the Green denotes “living plants” and our goal is to use the Sola Roof Tech to enable the integration of these concepts into the vast majority of roofs.

  7. In the Robert Altman film “The Player” there are two minor characters who are constantly trying to come up with a “hit” movie. The rule is that you have to be able to pitch the movie as “It’s [hit movie A] crossed with [hit movie B]”. Suffice to say, they fail. Being able to come up with something that is genuinely fresh (or seems so) is v. v. difficult of course. And most of us get entertained by the same story retold for new times. Perhaps there’s something to be written about “exaptation” (in the Steven Jay Gould and Elizabeth S. Vrba sense) – technologies devised for one thing (or as an afterthought- SMS messaging, for instance) that get picked up and used as something else. Maybe we should be looking at increasing our ability to exapt?

  8. You are cordially invited to see my StrongMobile Flying Car Project at http://www.strongware.com/dragon. You can view a 2-minute video of my full-size mockup model and consider the part about “Busting the Myths”.
    I would greatly appreciate any opinions or recommendations you may care to offer.

    Rich Strong (Major,USAF,Retired)

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