So you want to be the next Steve Jobs, eh? You want to see the future before it happens? You want the ability to determine which ideas will be embraced by the world? Then you must pay close attention to the way things are going, and find the places where the flow is being blocked, or dammed up. Those are the points where new streams are waiting to be formed.
Successful technologies solve problems. Using a flowing stream as an analogy, the water is the public, the people who say, “this product solves my problem, I’m going to buy it.” The current is the way the public is going, the technologies they’re using, and the things they’re doing. Dams in the stream are the problems. They’re causing problems for the people. If you can identify the dams, you’ve taken a big leap in predicting future technologies.
What is the solution to a dam? If you guessed a new stream, you’re right. Most great technologies, if not all, solve problems or improve upon solutions by creating new ways of doing the same thing. Smart phones are a new way of communicating, the wheel was a new way of moving heavy things, sliced bread was a new way of selling the same old bread. All of these new ways simply changed the old ways, usually for the better.
Identify The Dams
Great innovators like Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates don’t necessarily solve problems. They have teams of people to do that for them. What they do is find the places in the stream that are dammed up. They predict which future technologies will be embraced by consumers.
The most important thing is finding the problems. If you can find where people are having problems, you’ve won a major battle. Here are a couple examples.
Example #1: New Yorkers
Every day, the New York City subway system is packed with people – much like a can of sardines, maybe a little stinkier. Most of the people are on their way to work. Before tablet computing, the subway people made their commute bearable by reading the New York Times. Tons of people standing shoulder to shoulder reading newspapers, can you see the problem (the dam)? Well, people got pretty smart and began folding their newspapers into little rectangles, approximately the size of an iPad. Of course, this was before the iPad existed.
So, you can see the water was really built up at the dam. It was built up so much that a make-shift solution (stream) had formed. There was an art to folding one’s New York Times just right so that the pages could be turned without disrupting everyone else on the tightly packed train. That’s not a great solution, but it is a solution that showed how badly the water was dammed up. Well, Apple made a new stream when they created the iPad, and the water poured.
Example #2: Teenage Girls in Love
There’s a great song from the pre-Skype era called “Four” by a killer 90s pop punk band named Lit. In that song, there is one very important line – important to this example anyway – it goes, “she hangs our picture by the phone.” Notice the water building up at the dam? You can tell it’s almost overflowing by the make-shift solution the girl has made. The problem, the dam itself, is described perfectly in the chorus of the song, “she doesn’t think we’re gonna make it.” The singer and his girlfriend are having trouble with their relationship, and the fact that they are apart so much is to blame. As a make-shift solution to the problem of not seeing her boyfriend enough, the girlfriend hangs a picture of them by the phone, so she can picture him when they talk.
Someone could have heard this song, and identified the problem, and they would have been able to predict a future technology. It’s almost like video chat was invented by a teenage girl in love. Except, it wasn’t quite as good as video chat. So, when video chat came along, there was plenty of backed up water to flow down the stream, and the companies that built the stream – Skype, Oovoo, Google Hangouts – saw plenty of success.
Where the Dam is About to Flood
So, obviously great technologies solve problems. That’s easy. The trickier part is figuring out which problem is so bad that tons of people will pay for the solution; figuring out where the water is about to spill over the dam. If you can figure out the big problem, you’re more than half way there. You can predict future technologies, future tools. Then all that’s left is solving the problem, or coming up with a better solution, and that is why we go to Robert Morris University!