When will we see the next big innovation?

by George Lovell | | 0 comments

New inventions suck. The only people that use them are geeks, enthusiasts, and rich people, willing to spend insane amounts of money on frankly terrible products that are difficult to use and which no one else has - think early computers and video games.

Innovation is when an invention “catches on" - when it becomes practical, affordable, reliable, and ubiquitous. Innovation hoists an invention by its ugly, dysfunctional, pubescent head, and moulds it into a beautiful, strong, mature product.

All the goods we enjoy today are a result of decades of innovation. Imagine what life would be like if we'd called it a day after inventing the first light bulb (1800), motor car (1886), airplane (1903), washing machine (1934), or mobile phone (1973).

There's no such thing as an instant hit.

Even the internet, which saw a boom in the 1990s followed by the dot-com bust in 2000. It took decades for the internet to flower into a mature set of ideas and applications.

We see initial excitement, followed by a downturn.

The question is what comes next...

Extinction or flourishing?

In your opinion, how do the long-term prospects look for the following technologies?

  • Smart-glasses - with built in augmented reality.
  • Virtual reality - playing games, going to concerts, or hanging out with friends via a headset.
  • Wearables - smartwatches that track health metrics such as heart rate variability and blood sugar.
  • Smart homes - an increasing number of appliances controlled from your smartphone.
  • Self-driving cars and autonomous Uber rides.
  • Blockchain and cryptocurrencies - could they replace the dollar?
  • Biofuels and renewable energy - will we relieve our dependence on fossil fuels by utilising solar, wind, ethanol and algae?
  • Lab grown meat - food products with equivalent taste and nutrition profile without the ethical or environmental concerns.
  • Delivery drones - Order on Amazon for same-hour delivery by flying robot.
  • mRNA vaccines for HIV, Malaria, and other diseases that were long considered incurable.
  • Space tourism - no longer reserved for Branson and Bezos. 

We've selected these particular technologies because they already exist in some capacity, but much more innovation is required. The "Next Big Thing" has probably been around for over a decade. They are all things that we expect to see flourish within our lifetime - to become commonplace. It's just a matter of time and innovation.

These inventions are probably older than you think:

  • The first Google Glasses came in 2011.
  • The first virtual reality experience came in the early 60's; the first headset and gloves in 1985.
  • Seiko released a smartwatch over 24 years ago, in 1998.
  • Smart home technology can be traced back to 1975.
  • General Motors unveiled an autonomous car in 1939. The first autonomous car to be licenced for driving on public highways was in Germany in 2010.
  • Bitcoin was launched in January 2009.
  • Biodiesel was invented in 1985, solar panels in 1954, and first wind turbine in 1888. Burning wood (for cooking and heating) is technically a bio fuel.
  • Google funded the first cell-cultured burger in 2013, which cost $330,000.
  • Automatic aircraft have been around for over 100 years. Amazon completed their first drone delivery in 2016.
  • mRNA vaccines were a mostly-dismissed technology until they rescued us from the pandemic in 2020, yet they were first synthesised somewhere around 1988.
  • We've been shooting humans into space since 1961.

Sometimes we underestimate the amount of time it will take for innovations to prevail. If asked in 2016, most people would have thought that we'd be in driverless cars by 2022 - though they're coming to the UK in 2025, apparently.

We put this down to five reasons:

  • We love the idea of disruptive innovation, but it's rare. Innovation is slow and incremental. We don't see the foundations, the prototypes, the failures.
  • Science and creativity are rarely limiting factors. Bureaucracy, legislation, legal disputes, patent approval, raising funds, internal politics, and cultural pushback are behind-the-scenes factors which significantly delay innovation.
  • Technologies like mobile phones and computers don't have a date of birth. They sneak into our lives very gradually.
  • Corporations and stakeholders have an incentive to make us believe that innovations are "right around the corner" and "will transform the way that we X"
  • The media caters to our inherent bias for "huge breakthroughs" because it gets more clicks.

What about innovation in mobile phones? Unfortunately, we don't have any special insider knowledge. But we have some thoughts on innovations that could come in the next 10 years:

  • Unbreakable (or significantly more robust) screens - you'd love that wouldn't you.
  • Car manufacturers are pumping big money into improving battery chemistry, which could transfer into smartphone batteries. Improvements in power efficiency could double existing battery life. Switching from lithium to graphene could mean that batteries will no longer degrade as they age.
  • 5G will be replaced by 6G.
  • Over-the-air charging.
  • Improved foldable and rollable phones and tablets.
  • There is increasing pressure on manufacturers to produce eco-friendly products, including sustainable smartphones. We also expect to see innovations in refurbishing, which will extend product life cycles. Refurbished and re-claimed screens, batteries and other components are now on every parts suppliers' home page.

We can continue to improve camera specs, processor speed, battery life, display quality etc., but aside from that, it's difficult to see what can be added to smartphones. All the "easy" and "obvious" goals have been achieved. There really is increasingly little reason to upgrade regularly. Like laptops, a decent phone bought today will last you 4-5 years if looked after. If you're hungry for serious and exciting innovation, we'd suggest investigating other products - VR, AR, wearables, blockchain, genomics, AI, and brain chips.

Our favourite quotes on innovation:

“You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”
- Albert Einstein

"Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity - not a threat." - Steve Jobs

"If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." - Henry Ford

Thanks for reading!

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