Cool, crappy or of-the-earth
Driverless cars, 3-D printers, government geek squads — it all smacks of cool sci-fi futurism. And yet the game-changing nature of today’s innovations is not always easy to discern. Many disruptive products or companies rarely impress on first glance, agrees Thomas Thurston. Another man of his times, Thurston is CEO of Growth Science, a firm that deploys big data-driven algorithms to predict the success of a given innovation.
“Look at Urban Airship,” he says, referring to Portland’s wunderkind push-button startup. “It’s all dressed up in sex appeal, but push-button is a cheap and crappy way to get ads. I admiringly say ‘cheap and crappy.’ Those are the ones that expand and take over the market.” With a post-IPO value of $29 million, Twitter is another example. “Talk about lame — 140 character notes. It’s not even email.”
Tech innovations today are notable for infiltrating companies outside the technology space, Thurston and others argue. With its startup incubator and FuelBand technology, for example, Nike is no longer a shoe company but a “digital sport company integrating software and hardware into product development,” observes Greater Portland Inc’s Robbins. Understanding this new business model will be key to capturing future job growth, he says.
The next tech tsunami, the “Internet of things,” will continue the flattening of the world. By 2016, people will be surrounded by thousands of sensors embedded in everyday objects — think wearable computing, smart cars, connected homes. Networked objects will change lives and drive a $30 billion market that so far lacks a dominant player, Solur observes. “Intel and Microsoft ruled the world of PCs; ARM-based processors with OIS and Android are dominating mobile.” But there is no operating system leader in the wearables space.
Solur peers at the New Relic audience. “The little money you have kept aside — you know what to do with it.”
Talk to enough people about disruption circa 2014 and a pattern amid the chaos emerges: New technologies are liquifying industry and government, opening up new business opportunities. Simultaneously, skyrocketing global demand for food, water and energy is putting a premium on decidedly old-fashioned assets. “They are not making farmland anymore,” Equilibrium Capital’s Dave Chen tells me. “So he who owns farmland will have a very good asset for a long period of time.”
Chen says the most interesting disruptions occurring today are occurring in the "rerouting of value flows" in the natural resource and sustainability sectors. He cites a landmark 10-year U.S. Forest Service contract signed last spring awarding hundreds of thousands of acres of restoration work in the Malheur National Forest. The contract, which enabled the Malheur Lumber Company, the last remaining mill in Grant County, to stay open, moves away from traditional timber contracts to place a monetary value on restoration, such as reducing wildfire threats and improving habitat — while also providing jobs.
Another example is a water-trading credit scheme championed by local environmental groups such as the Freshwater Trust, in which polluters buy and trade “credits” embodied in restoration projects instead of investing in higher-cost pollution control technologies. “It has the potential to rewrite how conservation is done in the waterways of the United States,” Chen says. “That’s not hyperbole.”
Without exception, everyone I interviewed for this story spoke in hyperbolic terms. It’s enough to make one play devil’s advocate. Do we really live in an age of disruption? After all, the history of the world is the history of disruption — and disruptive technology: the wheel, the railroad, the telephone. As for end-of-the-world rhetoric around depletion of resources, doesn’t every generation think of itself as the apocalyptic generation? When I was a child, I went to bed every night terrified of nuclear war. Imagine living in Japan, or Dresden, during WWII.
But if hyperbolic thinking is part of the human condition, every generation puts its own stamp on the process. And as we adapt to the next disruptive phase, three distinguishing characteristics are worth noting. First, the United States is no longer immune to the unpredictable and often destabilizing economic and environmental forces we are accustomed to observing in other parts of the world. Second, technology has accelerated incidences of disruption. And third, the tech entrepreneur is now considered the driver of both social and business model innovation. Perhaps more than government or the citizen activist, the startup has come to represent the change we want to see in the world.
Ours is an era in which everyone imagines herself a transformer — or feels the pressure to transform. This past October, Portland-based Mercy Corps hired Google’s former senior engineering director, Ann Mei Chang, for the newly created position of chief innovation officer. One of a small number of tech executives moving into the international aid arena, Chang embodies the cultural zeitgeist. “We’re interested,” she says, “in things that are game changing.”