An economist and her student were walking along the street one day when the student looked down upon the pavement to see a fifty pound note slowly rolling on the breeze. ‘Look,’ said the student, ‘a fifty pound note!’. The economist answered wearily: ‘It can’t be, otherwise somebody would’ve picked it up.’
One of the most frequent questions we encounter is ‘If your idea is so straightforward, why hasn’t it already been done?’ To which there is no real answer beyond ‘There’s a first time for everything.’, and so it was with some amusement when two friends separately told me variations on the above joke.
All disruptive innovations have to clear this hurdle before they enter the mainstream. Until they are established their existence seems unbelievable. Afterwards they seem inevitable, even indispensable.
Steve Jobs famously left his position at HP because they wouldn’t run with his idea of building personal computers: computers are machines for business, the thinking went, why would you want one at home? Today, a home computer is as commonplace as a microwave oven (based on military technology) or a telephone (devised as a machine for communicating with the deaf). The first step in the innovation process is not a technological leap, but a change in mindset. For many this change is too big a leap to make, and for some it comes too late: Netbooks stole a march on all the big hardware manufacturers, but by the time they’d caught up, Apple had hit back with the tablet computer.
There are two sectors that are absolutely ready for disruptive innovation: energy generation and agriculture. Mitravitae has an innovation that can impact on both.
Speaking at the 22nd Annual Martin J. Forman memorial lecture Josette Sheeran, Vice-Chairman of the World Economic Forum gives us a flavour for the scale of the problems we face in simply feeding ourselves:
Over the next 40 years we will have to produce more food than we have in the last 8,000.
What will prevent us from producing this much food? There are plenty of factors, not least, a lack of clean water and fertile land to actually grow crops on. Man-made desertification has been going on since Roman times – and it’s accelerating. From the salination of ground water in Australia to the plummeting water table in India, it’s getting more and more difficult to meet even our most basic requirement for food and water. Even the affluent west cannot escape this eventuality with ever rising food prices set to see us enter an “era of permanent food crisis” as global demand increases.
Our old way of exhausting a resource by turning it into something disposable has to change. We still tolerate outdated linear ‘input-output-waste’ production processes in a world where social and business interactions have embraced the efficiency of networking and collaboration. Our energy, food and water systems can work together, just as they do in nature where biotic and abiotic systems interact to create sustainable and robust biogeochemical cycles.
Single function linear processes, that consume finite resources, and create temporary products at low efficiencies are being exposed: they are not industrial behemoths so much as lumbering dinosaurs. A product of a bygone wish to dominate, rather than collaborate. The comet has hit. It is time to change our mindset and realise the benefits of working with nature: a collaboration where every output has a function, and waste is eliminated.
At Mitravitae we have felt this sense of waste for some time – which set us on the road we are currently treading. Originally, we conceived a project on an industrial scale, but we have just completed initial development on a small scale system, one that is within the reach of all of us. It looks possible that if there is disruptive innovation waiting to happen to the energy and agricultural sectors, it might well be coming from the consumers themselves who are making their own water, electricity, food and fuel – rather than paying the high prices of the dinosaurs.