Disruptive technologies are also constructive

In 17th century Britain, wood was used for extracting iron from ores, heating homes, and building ships. Then there was a “timber famine”, which increased the use of coal. But coal deposits were deep underground, where flooding occurred. This led to the invention of steam engines to pump water out of the mines.

 

Higher efficiency steam engines provided the power for the Industrial Revolution, which made goods more plentiful and these goods had to be transported. By the 19th century, this drove the development of railroads that ushered in a transportation revolution. All this resulted from a shortage of wood.

 

The internet was made possible by silicon and glass. In 1958, Texas Instruments built an integrated electronic circuit including transistors, resistors and capacitors on the same silicon chip, which became the basis for today’s personal computers. In 1970, Corning produced the first high-purity glass fibres that allowed transmission of light over long distances. Fibre-optic communication replaced copper telephone lines, and now carry a vast amount of information over the internet. Four ounces of optical fibre carry more information than 33 tons of copper wire.

 

By the late 1990s, 40 million kilometres of optical fibre were laid across the world annually. A copper shortage is driving replacement by fibre optics. Copper cables are now recycled because the metal’s price has gone from under $1 per pound to over $4 since 2004, and theft is a problem.

 

Every technological change is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it disrupts existing markets, but on the other it often creates new markets. The biggest impediment to change is the inertia of existing markets; once in motion, markets are thought to remain in motion. But change happens, and if we do not control the change the change will control us.

 

Now the world’s use of paper is diminishing as a result of electronic replacement. Bits are thought to be cheaper than atoms as we replace paper images with screen images. There are new markets for paper – – we just have not imagined them yet.

1. Make paper smarter.
Print with infrared or other inks that can be read by special pens/readers so that the printed page can talk, sing, or link to a website.

2. Make paper radiate.
Print antennae, batteries and circuitry with conductive inks so that paper broadcasts what it is and where it is.

3. Make paper reusable.
Allow the printed sheet to be erased and reused.

4. Make paper print efficiently.
Link the paper to the printer/process for more efficient reproduction.

5. Make paper on steroids.
Create a new generation of paper with plastic-like attributes.

6. Make paper digital.
Integrate electronics and coatings that make paper into display screens.

The reduction in paper volume has been sufficient to close down machines, mills and companies. The resultant industry is leaner and meaner and may be in a better position to research and apply new approaches, which would lead to new paper applications and markets. We have not seen the level of innovation applied to paper that we have seen applied to printout technology. We seem to take the substrate for granted.

 

There is a US TV commercial for a plumbing fixtures company where a woman shows an architect a beautifully designed faucet and says, “Build a house around this.” Why not create new kinds of paper and say, “Build a printer and an industry around this”?

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