What are Exponential Technologies?

The earliest recorded use of the wheel was in Uruk, Mesopotamia sometime around 3500 BCE, and the initial use case was as potters’ wheels. The adoption of this ‘novel machinery’ facilitated the increase in the number of pottery artifacts being produced and traded by local craftsmen in the geographical area often recognized as one of the civilization’s earliest large urban centers.

While the wheel in its original form moved the needle, the addition of the axle transformed the invention from this initial use case to the wheel and axle concept, and the effect of this can be considered the first great leap forward in the day-to-day applications of the wheel.

Examples of these second-order applications were in transportation as well as in agriculture via the ox-drawn cart and, for the 40,000 to 60,000 residents of the city of Uruk, improved transportation and more efficient plowing had the exponential effect of vastly increasing the volume of goods and services that could be produced and be moved from place to place.

Fast forward three and a half millennia to this current age, the all too familiar applications of the original wheel concept range from everyday goods such as automobiles and clocks to specific industrial/societal applications such as centrifuges and windmills for electricity generation.

This rapid increase from one use case by a few 100 or 1000 humans some millennia ago to thousands of use cases impacting billions of people today describes the exponential nature of the wheel — a technological invention developed in the bronze age and now having increased relevance in the modern information/experience age

Is it possible to establish characteristics of exponential technologies by drawing inferences from the wheel and other well-known technological inventions?

Commencing by making a list of humankind transforming technologies such as the steam engine, concrete, refined crude oil, etc., and observing for any recurrent characteristics, we think that a framework can be drawn to identify and predict innovations or technologies that have a high likelihood of exponential sustainable impact.

Furthermore, in subsequent parts of this paper, we will prioritize and prescribe possible applications of select contemporary exponential technologies to the biggest issues besetting the bottom billion today.

Taking this approach, the following characteristics can be inferred as being intrinsic to exponential technologies:

  1. Relevance — exponential technologies do not exist in laboratories or workshops as improvements on current methods or machines. Instead, for a technology to be exponential, it must have immediately relevant use case(s) within a particular context. A useful caveat with this criterion is that relevance can also be contextual, for instance, certain high-tech solutions have zero applicability in parts of the world without sufficient foundational infrastructure.
  2. Near-immediate impact — for early adopters at the minimum, an exponential technology must be immediately available and create tangible effects to gain ground. An example is a lightbulb, which illuminated and instantly impacted daily living across outcomes such as safety and security of lives and property, elongation of the workday, reduction of energy costs, etc.
  3. Scalable — by being able to grow beyond just niche usage to mass adoption, and further by serving as an installed base on which multiple derivatives and modifications can be developed and applied to various other scenarios. An example here is the internet and communication technology in general.
  4. Durable — and exponential technology should be able to withstand the wear and pressure of time on its initial concept, and when it evolves into more complex forms due to sustaining innovation, increase in relevance as well as the scope of application e.g., batteries
  5. Shape humanity — While the impact of exponential technologies in the short term is often in immediate availability or measurable effects, a true test is in the technology over a long period, making significant alterations to societal configurations, economies, and demographics on both or either negative or positive scales e.g., nuclear technology

This is an excerpt from our knowledge paper “The Exponential Technologies for the Bottom Billion” launching soon. Want to be the first to know when it drops? Respond to this article with your email.

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