In part one of this series I looked at how the evolution of tools is providing the ecosystem for creativity. In this part I look at how today’s changes in power and economics are also amplified echoes of the past.
By Glenn Augustus, Technologist, Global Infrastructure Services
Power, Fuel, Energy. Your instant view on the meaning of these words is probably as much a product of the decade you attended high school as it is for any definition from the dictionary. If you are teen of the 70’s they probably bring images of coal mines, the 80’s oil refineries, 90’s renewables/wind farms and after the millennium, millions upon millions of mobile phone batteries. The progression of power systems and delivery remains a cornerstone of industrialized development, playing a direct or indirect role in every major advance in technology since the steam engine in the 18th century.
Power at the outset of the industrial revolution dictated where you could build your factory. Building by a river gave the advantage of being able to harness the energy to power equipment, to remove waste products easily, and to transport goods. This combination created a number of the industrial cities we know today. The revolution came with the steam engine, no longer did you need the river to power your factory, transporting raw materials and goods became practical with steam-powered locomotives and steamboats. These advances enabled factories to be built away from the rivers, nearer their raw materials, making efficiencies in production and new industrial towns began to develop. Transportation links created by advances in rail, sea, road and air travel make the world seem smaller every day, all enabled through power.
Today on the road, we are rapidly approaching the critical mass of wide adoption where the primary power source for the car is no longer the internal combustion engine, it’s a battery. Enthusiasts that were once covered in oil, dressed in overalls, are now in jeans and t-shirts, their hands are clean and they are more likely to be python-heads than petrol-heads. Also check out my colleague Graham Chastney’s post on the unsolved issues of mobile power.
In the home, the transition to a federated power system has started, where the demand on national power infrastructure can be better managed, where the ability to generate and top-up your own power from wind/solar/bio/ground-heat/fuel-cell is just a standard shaped plug away instead of open-heart-surgery on your home. Heavy industry is still a way off in adoption and can be attributed to the required working profile of machinery and insufficient stored energy per cubic inch. One thing we can be sure of is that the tech will get smaller and our expectations will get higher.
The standard of living prior to the industrial revolution was, for the average person, pretty terrible. Average life expectancy at birth in the UK in 1780 was about 35 years old, lots did not make it that far. As time progressed a rapid change began through the iterative cycle of better conditions driving better education, driving increased innovation, driving higher expectations. This was supported by an increase in demand for non-essential goods along with efficiencies in production of food and transport leading to a healthier workforce, for instance the potato became more widely available leading to better nourishment. By around 1850 average life expectancy had risen 5 years to 40 years old – doesn’t seem a lot now, but it was huge back then.
This all in turn lead to a substantial increase in the income per capita over the 100-year period between 1760 and 1860, where in the UK it rose from $2500 to around $5000 in today’s money. It was the industrialists that were driving this increase, and using the brute force approach, efficiency came second to the increasing output, productivity per person did not increase substantially, but the number of people producing did.
Jump forward to today, where life expectancy at birth is into the 80’s in a number of countries, though this is no longer increasing at prior pace, in fact it may be reducing due to lifestyle and environmental stimulus. The income per capita in 2014 in the UK was around $45,000 and remains on an upward trend.
It should be no surprise that near the top of the Fortune 500 there are companies that build what we accept today as ‘human essentials’, Walmart – food/clothing, Exxon – Power/Energy, Ford – Transport, but what about Apple? What do they produce that is essential for the world? Nothing. Before I get shot down in flames for either dissing Apple, or using the “Apple=Innovation” cliché, it is exactly because they produce nothing essential that they demonstrate the economic change we are in, and in doing it, shaping what is considered essential. They use their creative energy to develop features that when you look at them individually may not seem valuable, “why would I need that?”, but when presented fully integrated into a well understood environment, the reaction alters to “How did we survive without this?” A clever art. Features just as advanced are available from other companies, but it can be as different as wanting to take a holiday cruise across the Atlantic and being offered the choice of a loose bar stool on the open deck of a cargo transport, and a reclining lay-z-boy in the captain’s private lounge on the Queen Mary 2.Both will get you across the ocean, but only one will get you there in style.
I guess if I could predict future economics then I would be complaining that my yacht didn’t match the color of my jet, but anyway, the similarity between the UK in the late 19th century and the emerging eastern economies today is stark. Through the massive industrialization and brute force approach, the potential size of the new economies is immense.
But where does that leave the existing western economies? the high expectations of the workers that I mentioned earlier are still there, the commoditization of manufacturing at this point is uncomfortably accepted that the emerging economies are better at it. The answer is of course innovation, using every intellectual asset, every piece of collective kudos and admiration to make things unique that others aspire to, then clean. rinse. repeat. Educate to make the kids smart, intelligence is only one variable in being smart, I know a lot of intelligent people, and a lot of smart people, it’s not a perfectly overlapping union.
So while I stand waiting my tea or coffee in the morning, looking at the steam rising, I can see the same relationship between tools, power and economics in action that I would have seen 250 years ago, only with a few less options on the menu back then ;-).
In the third and final post of this series, I will look at how daily life is changing and why five senses may not be enough.
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As a Technologist in CSC’s Global Infrastructure Services, Glenn helps clients use technology to realise effective IT through the development of CSC’s infrastructure services portfolio. He has held a variety of senior architecture and engineering positions within CSC before becoming Global Offering Manager for CSC’s Storage as a Service and most recently Chief Technologist for Compute. Glenn lives with his family in the United Kingdom.