“Writer William Gibson once famously said that ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ I worry more that the past is here – it’s just so evenly distributed that we can’t get to the future.” Paul Kedrosky (futurist, Managing partner SK Ventures)
What do new technologies kill off, replace and displace from the pre-existing world? What are the issues around that? What existing technology commitments are we hanging on to that are preventing future ones from arriving? In short, for this part of our Nature Meets Future series, we are interested in the topic of Technology Death.
What is a ‘Dead Technology’?
Technologies typically die through a decline in popularity and obsolescence. They fall out of use and become less available through cost and scarcity.
They also fall foul sometimes, though perhaps not often enough, to legislation when their effects cannot be ignored. Like the long-term problems with pesticides (e.g. DDT), asbestos, aerosols and fossil fuels, in the past we have embedded usage of problematic chemicals in commonly accepted production.
Consider the ’forever chemicals’ PFAS, PFOA, PFOS, and BPA linked to compromised human fertility. Like the addiction to oil we have an addiction to computers. While reaping the short-term rewards we are pushing the problematic side effects of their production into someone else’s future to solve for us. In the Financial Times article, ‘The crackdown on risky chemicals that could derail the chip industry’ points to the problems with PFAS and notes that “In December, 3M announced it would halt PFAS production by 2025, reasoning that the risks were not worth the potential profit”.
These mechanisms of popularity, obsolescence and necessary legislation are more reactive than strategically directed. As a result, some technologies linger on. They linger on through tradition and through lack of access to new ones often due to wealth disparity between nations. For example, rather than stigmatise and prohibit the use of wood, peat and brown coal for fuels, legislation and marketing could instead undertake the funding and supply of affordable replacements to those using them.
A species with a planetary-scale problem
Our planet is suffering from the effects of the over application impact of keystone technologies for energy production, food production, transportation and materials manufacturing, and the effects and costs of this were not understood or ignored.
Ways and commitments to bring the end of life to harmful technologies are needed. These ways and commitments take into account wealth disparity as discussed above. A quote from the Climate Action Tracker captures this issue ‘Many poorer countries haven’t had the chance to amass wealth from burning huge amounts of fossil fuels, but are now being asked to give them up’.
Exploring Technology Death
To explore this topic, we are interested in:
- Conversations about the technologies that will be displaced, how that can be done gracefully and the transition to new ones. Should transitions be forced or left to market forces? We see this tension for example, in energy generation technologies, personal transportation, and communications networks. A recent example is the closing down of 3G networks affecting the elderly population. Another example are the problems with the deployment of 5G communications in the USA being delayed by tardy compliance in the aircraft industry.
- Technologies that, partnered with other new ones can magnify their positive effects. The partnership of EVs and AI for example may reshape urban personal transport in densely populated cities. The ways electric Mobility may reshape our cities is captured in this article. Above experience is the ability for EVs to reimagine the electricity grid through Vehicle-to-grid technologies to improve our electricity grid.
- Identifying other technology candidates for replacement. We are already seeing scientific advances and start-ups, for example, rethinking concrete and cement to reduce their CO2 footprint. There is at least one start up looking at carbon-negative concrete.
- How organisations, public services, private enterprises, social groups and individuals, can overcome the attachment to old technologies. Some countries still have rules that support horse traffic on public roads while advances in motor vehicle performance and density make that impractical.
- How the transition to new technologies can take place with a replacement rather than ongoing co-existence in mind. Many countries are promoting the replacement of fossil fuel home heating with heat pump technologies.
- How we are overcommitted to past technologies through cost spreading over periods of time that prolong their life and delay replacement. The pharmaceutical industry makes huge investments in research to deliver new drugs. Investments take time to write off to put them into the hands of many people at a reasonable price and yet a reasonable return to the originating organisations. The aviation industry must manage the design and construction of complex aircrafts and maintain compliance with the regulation as it changes, managing it without compromising the well-being of passengers and aircrew unnecessarily.
- How we need to deploy technologies with obsolescence in mind. Rather than design infrastructure for repair, it must be designed for repair AND replacement. This is akin to the way that computer hardware, software and communication protocols are ‘stacked’ and the components are somewhat replaceable individually. Even cities as social technologies, have evolved and changed through generations of personal transport technologies. Retrofitting bicycles as a mass personal transport option in cities that focused on vehicles is difficult. How can we design with technologies in mind that are still over the horizon? That may be an energy form like hydrogen for cars or new mass transport solutions or new behaviours like Working-From-Home as a given.
- How can we legislate technologies to ensure their end-of-life when a replacement is better in function, better suits the context, is more assistive to people and businesses and is less harmful to the environment. This is complex especially when people are involved. We have seen the cognitive variety – for example, age, and neurodiversity – that needs to be serviced in deploying mobile, internet-enabled devices as a replacement for face-to-face services like healthcare. Just as it may not be useful for people seeking face-to-face care, for others it may provide for assistive technologies for their disabilities.
- How we can solve the fairness of distribution and replacement by separating the intertwined threads of wealth disparity and technology access. Access to healthcare technologies for example is a global patchwork of quality from country to country.
What has prompted this interest in Technology Death?
- The world struggling to move away from fossil fuels when acceptable and efficient replacements have yet to be found. Or at least replacements which do not also require a large change in infrastructure and behaviour for industrial, commercial, and personal consumers. Humans have a long-standing desire for the agency and self-determination that comes from personal transport rather than mass public transport.
- Questionable thinking around replacement technologies. For example, much of the carbon cost of a car comes during its manufacture. Bringing forward migration to an EV (Electric Vehicle) fleet may forward that fossil carbon cost of production before it has been usefully amortised. EV costs are also still in their early days of deployment. Claims of 10-20 years lifespan of battery packs needs to be proven in real-world use rather than modelled. ‘Range anxiety’ in EVs is a symptom of manufacturer rolling road EV range figures versus experience. The technology lifespan of EVs must be estimated against the next revolution of transport propulsion.
- The consequences of new technology have their own problematic footprint. The need for rare-earth metals and lithium, for example, is a constraint on EVs as is the recycling of their battery packs. Are we responsibly weighing the cost of satiating that supply constraint against the human exploitation it is causing?
- Our poor track record of clearing up the detritus of past technology transitions. Consider the pollution problems we have with mining processes of the past, industrial processes and buildings that used asbestos, and waste plastic from unregulated use in consumer products.
- The need to understand the effects of scaling new technologies when there is both conscious (acknowledged and recognised) and unconscious (unacknowledged or unrecognised) reliance on the old ones.
Who would be interested in the subject of Technology Death within a business, and why?
- CTOs (Chief Technology Officer) / CIOs (Chief Information Officer) – Rehearsing technology transitions that are forced ahead of their time by market demand, organisation value change or governance. How it may be of benefit to do this, for example, for the sake of simplification.
- CFOs (Chief Financial Officer) – Looking at the potential for bringing forward cost amortisation of organisation infrastructure, materials, and knowledge investments. Rehearsing the impacts of transition costs, and the costs of not transitioning. Anticipating regulation changes that will impact the value of infrastructure investments. Supporting strategic decisions with more flexible financial arrangements.
- CDO (Chief Design Officer) / CXO (Chief Experience Officer) – Design thinkers – ways to challenge assumptions about the need for current technology, and to help redesign processes to be more efficient and effective without them. How do we create a user experience that builds trust that a functional need that can and will be satiated by changing solutions over a lifetime?
- CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) and Sustainability / ESG leaders – Those interested in, or tasked with looking at, actively working at zero carbon transition – adding more value in arguments to transition away from fossil fuel/highly polluting technologies.
- Innovation teams – Advocates for technology adoption and deployment, problem-solving for future technology replacements.
- Infrastructure transition leads – change management alongside hardware – operations, processes, and machinery.
- Product development teams (if long-term planning is based on assumptions about technology revolutions).
- Information technologists – often tasked with designing, developing, deploying, and maintaining old systems and transitioning to new technology.
- Human resources (for workforce impact discussions).
Why would industries be interested in the topic of Technology Death?
- Technology companies – Organisations preparing for the death of their core products and services. When talking about new technologies there is a tendency to think about the new technology baby rather than the care of its ageing, predecessors. For a business, there are potential transition costs for operational effects, management effects and market effects.
- Energy companies – Adding a new dimension and starting point when discussing a transition of energy sourcing. Being clear about the reasons for perpetuating past technologies and the external long-term ramifications, for example, the winding down of gas storage in the North Sea that led to an energy security vulnerability.
- Consultancies – Many consultancies and agencies specialise in maintaining legacy systems or working within them. Need to be mindful of when they leapfrog emerging technology to go from out-of-date infrastructure through to the next major wave, or whether they transition to sweep up business from companies that are slow adopters of new technology and are using the just-about-to-go-out-of-support systems (for example, the Microsoft/Windows operating system versions)
- Government – Understanding the implications of bringing forward technology-killing legislation to industries that have long-term commitments to them. Should there be subsidies for early technology terminations?
The above is our starting point for looking at Technology Death. It is the shadow side of technology invention and innovation. It is an important part of a technology lifecycle that needs to be managed.
We need to create technologies with their end in mind as much as the value that they create in being adopted. Looking at this topic will inform our processes of creation as much as the processes of destruction.
Theory or an Imperial commitment?
Imperial College London has many technology initiatives but one that captures this issue well is the Brahmal Vasudevan Institute for Sustainable Aviation. It is looking at the important issue of reinventing air travel with a more sustainable, economic, and therefore socially attractive, solution. Air traffic, passenger and freight, accounts for 2.5% of CO2 pollution.
Elsewhere, check out Seratech, a spinout from our ecosystem that is developing carbon-negative cement.