Technology Assessment from the Jetsons Perspective

jetsonMy almost-4-year-old and I watched “The Jetsons” together today. In this episode, Elroy started out by solving an incomprensible math problem on the blackboard. Grade school, in the Jetsons future, was apparently much more advanced than today’s! After Elroy solved the problem, he returned to his seat where the boy next to him (the class clown) was shown distracting the other kids, making rude comments, and watching a rerun of “The Flintstones” on his hand-held mobile device.

It was almost 10 minutes later when I realized – “Hold on! They didn’t have iPods or iPhones back in the 60′s when this show was made!”

It didn’t dawn on me until much later that the blackboard Elroy used was hopelessly antiquated. If the animators could envision our ubiquitous mobile devices, even without the wealth of information they can access through the Internet, why not networked communications? Why not the very simple whiteboard?

Liebenau (2007), in a study by the London School of Economics intended to identify better ways to prioritize emerging technologies in the UK between 2007 and 2017, captured the problem of technology assessment in The Jetsons as part of his work. For example, he notes that both the Flintstones and the Jetsons portrayed suburban life from the social, cultural and moral perspective of the typical 1960′s American family – only the technologies were different. The most critical variables were unchanged:

They left alone most of the really interesting things: social and interpersonal life; spatial and temporal relations (even though the Jetsons used rockets they still travelled around the strict equivalent of their own neighbourhood); and work. They only tinkered with shelter, sustenance and security (everybody was always safe, although they occasionally crashed their stone-wheel cars and personal rockets). Where their imagination ranged more widely was with communication (where the Flintstones used a squawking bird for a factory whistle and the Jetsons used wrist-watch telephones – an image already common in futuristic comics of the 1920s like Dick Tracey). They probably meant to portray significant differences with regard to food, although that was less well thought out since the Flintstones merely ate huge joints of meat and the Jetsons ate processed gloop excreted from kitchen machines. They also had some imaginative notions of play, but both families had leisure time (and tastes) typical of aspirations of the American lower middle-class suburbanites they were… Whereas they captured the idea of the transformation of food, they did not imagine the associated social and commercial context brought about by fast food take-aways and eating at shopping malls.

Nor did they capture changes in the form and function of work – George labors at Spacely Sprockets, a manufacturing firm, during “normal business hours” each day and kicked off his shoes when he got home, greeted by a dinner made by Rosie, the robot helper. Fred heads to Slate Enterprises to operate the “heavy equipment” (dinosaurs) until the bird-whistle blows at the end of the day and he can go home. Their relationships with Mr. Spacely and Mr. Slate are identical, and mirror the hierarchical structures of the predictable, scientifically managed organization. Although George Jetson is often seen using a videoconferencing facility like Skype, he is never seen using this to attend a meeting at work or to otherwise get something done asynchronously.

The reason I find this scenario interesting is that it highlights the challenges we face today when we are assess the implementation of a particular technology in a specific context, or when we attempt to gauge the impact of emerging technologies on people, on the market, on relationships, or on society as a whole. We change our technologies, and then those technologies change and shape us, continuously impacted by the social, economic and cultural context.

Quality Impacts of Global Warming and Climate Change

Temperatures in central Alaska have been 60 below zero (degrees F) for two weeks now:

Alaska Extreme Cold

Extreme temperatures — in Johnson’s case about 60 below zero — call for extreme measures in a statewide cold snap so frigid that temperatures have grounded planes, disabled cars, frozen water pipes and even canceled several championship cross country ski races. Alaskans are accustomed to subzero temperatures but the prolonged conditions have folks wondering what’s going on with winter less than a month old.

This is not an isolated event. Just last week, a record snow event in Washington state and British Columbia caused roofs to collapse.

What does it mean when “extreme events” happen more and more often? Are we really succumbing to global warming, or has global warming stopped, putting us on the threshold of a new ice age? I’m not interested in assessing the scientific validity of these speculations, especially since in many cases the observed data doesn’t match earlier predictions – collectively, we still have a lot to learn about the true impacts of anthropic climate change.

What I do want to focus on is one way in which our expectations influence decision making in quality management, and how this relates to climate change and the prospect of global warming. We don’t construct buildings that can withstand such heavy snow in Washington state, because historical weather records indicate that such weather is not likely to occur. Similarly, we don’t fortify buildings to be earthquake-proof in New England, because we don’t expect that a damaging event will ever happen there. Our expectations of environmental conditions influence the technical specifications that we establish.And our ability to conform to those specifications is one factor that determines quality of output.

Juran’s definition of quality as “fitness for use” implies that we understand the typical environmental conditions that characterize the context of use. We also have to be cognizant of the extreme events that might occur, and when these extreme events are outside the bounds of our expectations, failures can occur.

So from the quality perspective, it doesn’t matter if the polar ice caps melt or if they advance as far as Florida. A major unspoken risk of climate change is that we will be required to adapt to new environmental expectations, and it will take some time for us to make our manufacturing systems respond. For example, airplanes are air-worthy because they are fit for the expected context of use (flight altitude, expected outside air pressure, turbulence that’s not severe). This week in fact, many planes in Alaska have been grounded because they weren’t built for the extreme conditions.

If the environment changes significantly (whether it’s through global warming or global cooling), the assumptions underlying the technical specifications for many of the products that support our economy may have to shift. In the meantime, we can expect frequent and potentially serious quality problems to emerge.

The Relativity of Innovation

relativityIncreasing innovation is something that many companies want to do to enhance and sustain competitiveness. In “Will the American Competitiveness Initiative Work?” I asked whether throwing money at the problem is the best approach.

I ask this question because most of the books and academic literature on innovation only consider the absolute aspects of innovation. For example, how do you come up with new ideas? Or bring disparate ideas together into new amalgams of ideas? How can you unite the right people to stimulate productive collaboration? How do you generate new patentable machines and methods? [I’m thinking about books like Kelley’s The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation , or the Harvard Business Review on Innovation.]

But innovation is relative to a person, a community, or a society – and the social context within which these people interact with one another. The concept of appropriate technology considers that the progress and advancement brought about by innovation might involve a simple, uncomplicated solution. With this in mind, here are the two genres that an innovation can follow:

  • Absolutely Innovative – A new idea, invention or product is implemented, possibly in a new social context or for a new purpose. Examples: iPod/iPhone, composite materials, social networking software, nanotechnology. The novelty of these innovations is clear – it’s new to everyone, but is possibly only useful to some.
  • Relatively Innovative – It might not be a new idea, invention, or product, but it is implemented in a new context or for a new purpose. Example: bringing clean water to an impoverished village. Is it absolutely innovative? No, because the technology for producing clean water is not new. But the way in which the technology is integrated into the new environment might yield great benefits to the local community, and thus be considered an earth-shattering innovation.

There are a few visionary researchers who are more sensitive to relative innovation – in particular, C.K. Prahalad’s The New Age of Innovation and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

A New American Competitiveness can be fueled by relative innovation. (One more day and I’ll post my two-pronged strategy.)

Low-Tech, High Impact Innovation

Did you know that sometimes, a simple solution can be orders of magnitude more effective than an advanced, modern one?

The term for this is “appropriate technology” – and the concept of appropriate technology is particularly relevant when you want to innovate in a developing economy. But it can also provide a blueprint for innovation under any economic circumstances.

The World Bank, an assistance agency of the United Nations, provides funds to developing countries for projects that are not eligible for lending from institutions in other world markets. Although it was originally instituted to fund reconstruction projects after World War II, its projects to date include building power dams, improving sanitation, stimulating agricultural technology transfer (particularly for independent farmers), and stimulating technology transfer for all aspects of industrial technology in developing countries. Citing E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book as the source of the “appropriate technology” movement, World Bank research economists collected and gathered empirical evidence to test the notion that “intermediate” technologies adapted to local conditions that include lesser education and more widespread unemployment would be more effective in achieving local economic goals. (Weiss 2006)

They found that indeed, you could pick technologies to implement in under-developed countries that had excellent cost/benefit profiles – but those technologies would still not be adopted by the people (or they might adopt them, but the effect would be detrimental). Weiss traced the progress of four initiatives that considered this paradox using the principle of appropriate technology. The latest, greatest equipment to move earth and build villages faster looked like it had great innovative potential – on paper. But what really happened as a result of this study?

The researchers came up with some pretty enlightening examples of efficient appropriate technology in the field. For example, did you know that head baskets can be one of the most efficient solutions for moving earth over short distances on level ground? Did you know that donkeys provide a more effective solution for transporting materials short distances up steep slopes than heavy machines?

Adopting the perspective of “appropriate technology” is an excellent way to promote and increase innovation. Your solutions don’t have to be high tech, they just have to provide wide benefits – and taking this sometimes counterintuitive approach can be enlightening.

The concept of appropriate technology reflects both the ISO 8402 definition of quality, and the ISO 9241-11 definition of usability, each of which requires four elements: specified users (or people who benefit), specified goals, systems that are intended to meet those goals for those users, and a specified context of use. Too often we might neglect that final element, which really represents what we are trying to achieve when we consider the appropriateness of technology. If we strive to always take into account systems thinking, however, we should naturally account for many of these considerations as we accommodate a myriad of international and cultural differences.

Weiss, C. (2006). Science and technology at the World Bank, 1968-83. History and Technology, 22(1), March 2006, p. 81-104.