There is nothing like the moment of creation. An inspired hunch becomes a laboratory breakthrough, specs become a prototype — and success seems preordained. Investors will flock with funding. Customers will line up. And the competition — well, what competition?
Innovation has never been that simple, of course. Most flashes of genius fade away long before the first customer comes calling. Even some of the most worthwhile innovations never overcome the maze of obstacles to their adoption and growth.
Therefore, it is with a dose of humility, as well as with as a sense of excitement, that this month's Future Tense identifies five technologies that are on the verge of mass acceptance — and massive impact. Right now, most of these breakthroughs are emerging from the lab with hopes of greatness. The hard work is far from over. But these advances remind us of the promise of technology-driven innovation.
What are the innovators whom we chronicle doing right? For one thing, they refuse to get discouraged by the current economic jitters. Even in Internet technology and computer software — two areas that are seen as being in the midst of a severe down cycle — pioneers have pressed ahead with dramatic new approaches to peer-based computing and interactivity among Web pages.
The people championing these technologies are also sweating to get the details right. Design teams are agonizing over features that mean the difference between something elegant and something clunky. Sales teams are wooing initial "lighthouse" customers who can provide credibility in the marketplace.
Finally, in a climate where it's a struggle for startups to get enough money to succeed, innovators are finding ways to tap into big-company resources. Take something as alluring as the hybrid gasoline-electric car. The most interesting thinking on how to bring such cars into the mainstream isn't coming from lone inventors; it's being brought to life by mavericks within the big automakers themselves.
Need more convincing that the technology-driven transformation of business, work, and life is just getting started? Then consider how the future looks to three experts in information technology, life sciences, and alternative energy. These thought leaders have been watching genuine progress — and short-lived fads — since at least the mid-1980s. Each of them is betting that the next five years will turn out to be a fertile period for innovation.
About 50 miles north of San Francisco, in Sebastopol, California, Tim O'Reilly runs one of the computer industry's most successful publishing enterprises. His O'Reilly guides have become essential reading for anyone who wants to know how to design a Web site or program in PERL. "Everyone thinks we're at a pause in the tech world," O'Reilly says. "But I think there's a lot more development of the Internet ahead of us than behind us."
Strikingly, one of the top-selling O'Reilly titles in recent months has been a guide to bioinformatics: the use of computers to analyze biological data, especially that which relates to the human genome. Why? As longtime venture capitalist Samuel Colella observes, recent breakthroughs in genomics have unleashed a torrent of raw data. Those findings need to be crunched if drug companies are to develop better leads for new types of medicine.
"We have moved beyond just identifying genes," Colella says. "Now we're in the post-genomic era. The next phase that's as hot as can be is personalized medicine." Know enough about each person's genes, he argues, and it will be possible to come up with distinctive medicines to treat our individual type of heart disease, brittle bones, or depression.
"In the beginning, some of this will cost thousands of dollars per person," says Colella, a founding partner of Versant Ventures in Menlo Park, California. "But the price will come down." Overall, he sees a bright future for genetic testing, with dozens of young companies springing into the business. But he has two major concerns: regulation and confusion about who will pay for such tests. "Reimbursement issues could either drive this business or kill it," Colella says.
If new technology is about to affect how we use computers and how we get medical care, it's only natural to expect big changes in our energy sources as well. In Snowmass, Colorado, the legendary futurist Amory Lovins has been keeping an eye on alternatives to fossil fuels. He believes that their promise is about to materialize.
"Fuel cells and solar cells are about to get cheap enough to make a real difference," he says. Wind production has become one of the cheapest energy sources available, he adds, with use surging in markets as diverse as China, Denmark, and India.
At some point, Lovins contends, gasoline-based cars will give way to more energy-efficient — and environmentally friendly — alternatives. He has high hopes for a hydrogen-burning car that could get the equivalent of 90 miles to the gallon, but concedes that it may be a decade away from meaningful production. In the meantime, he is struck by the rapid advances that car companies are making in producing hybrid gasoline-electric cars. This year, Honda and Toyota both launched models that get 50 miles to the gallon or more, and they have been attracting brisk demand.
In fact, in his own job as research CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins has begun driving a Honda Insight. The hybrid model can go 700 miles on a single tank of gasoline, and "that's quite good," he coyly observes.
We think that the same can be said of all of the breakthrough technologies identified in this edition of Future Tense.
Fast Company senior editor George Anders (firstname.lastname@example.org) keeps his eye on the future from his base in Silicon Valley.
- The Big Picture
- Faster, cheaper, better, smarter — and maybe a little tougher. The technology-driven transformation of business, work, and life is just getting started.
- Nothing but Net
- Future Tense: 802.11b Wireless Networking Technology
- Code of Conduct
- Future Tense: Extreme Programming
- What's Next for the Net?
- Future Tense: X Internet
- If the Gene Fits ...
- Future Tense: Personalized Genetic Testing
- Engine of Progress
- Future Tense: Hybrid Gasoline-Electric Engines
A version of this article appeared in the October 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.