Friday, 14 October 2011
The cult of innovation returns to haunt us every decade. In the stock market, such occurrences lead to disproportionately high valuations of technology companies. In colleges and universities, the demand for biotechnology and computer-science courses grows. In the job market, companies hire less accountants and more engineers.
At those times, newspapers report the creation of novel businesses and professions. Radio talk shows announce that the world has changed and that nothing will remain the same. Television commentators ask viewers to forget traditional ideas about the economy and invest their savings on technology.
Periods of foolish exaggeration end badly without exception. Shares experience a momentous rise before a collapse in their price. Companies cut down on research and salaries for scientists return to reasonable levels. Biotechnology graduates cannot find jobs in high-technology companies and opt for less glamorous positions in the food industry.
The misconception behind those fads is that technology can multiply essential human needs. That idea is false. Every time that investors have fuelled immoderate expenditures on technology, it has proved a disaster. Every time that journalists have predicted an era of unlimited growth, it has led to economic catastrophe.
Technology developments that are unconnected to fundamental human necessities require a long-term view that few companies can afford. Original research is a narrow path fraught with difficulties. Ground-breaking innovation demands extraordinary knowledge and dedication.
For these reasons, before you begin to walk such narrow paths, you should ask where they are going to lead you. Will your efforts take you to a crowded or lonely place? Is there a market on the other side of the desert that will reward you in case of success? In any case, you want to avoid working for years on a dead-end project.
Do not be afraid of selecting a demanding career path as long as it leads you to a crowded market. Before embarking on any long-term venture, make a pause and assess how that project relates to the eight fundamental human needs. Here is a check list that you can use.
1) Food: the objectives of food technology are to increase productivity, quantity, and quality. Population growth, in particular in developing countries, requires higher agricultural output at lower cost. On the other hand, consumers in industrialized countries are demanding better quality.
Research and development efforts in the food industry are not focused only on production but also on distribution. Improved packaging and logistics are as important as better agricultural techniques. Still today, large amounts of food are ruined during transportation and storage.
2) Health services: in addition to the development of new patentable drugs, efforts are being devoted to improving hospital management. Pilot projects carried out in the last decade have shown that a better organization of resources can slash patients waiting time at the same time that overall costs are reduced.
3) Housing: the last decade has led to overbuilding in some areas and new construction activity should concentrate on the most profitable segments of the market. Pre-manufactured housing is still underdeveloped in many countries and can be expected to grow in the 21st century.
4) Clothing: the internet has changed how the fashion industry operates. The separation of design and production is bound to continue during the next decades with an emphasis on increased speed. It is conceivable that, in the 21st century, the time that elapses from design to consumer purchase is reduced to a few days.
5) Communication and transportation: ubiquitous internet access will continue to affect how we work, drive, and communicate. In the next years, the capabilities of mobile phones should equal those of laptop computers, improving our overall productivity and quality of life.
6) Culture and entertainment: better digital audio and video technology will continue to increase the world's cultural output. The 21st century will multiply our choice of films, songs, books, and podcasts. What we have seen during the last decade is just the beginning.
7) Financial services: the gap between professional and personal money management will continue to close. The quality and speed of financial information should increase further in the next decades. Improved trading platforms on the internet will open additional markets to private investors, leading to more transparency and reduced risk.
8) Legal services: pre-paid legal plans, which have become successful in some countries, will continue to expand in the next decades. Conflict-resolution services should also experience growth in the 21st century as more companies discover the effectiveness of arbitration in settling commercial disputes.
Irrespective of your business or profession, those markets will determine your future. Human needs revolve around those eight domains, which can be improved and enhanced, but not ignored. If you choose the narrow path of a difficult profession or career, make sure that it leads to one of those eight crowded places.
[Image by Leonard Low under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]