The content of this post was updated on February 16, 2017 in a new post titled Intersections Promise to Drive Multiple Paradigm Shifts
When I first started using the term “Combinatorial”, people thought I was making words up. Although I’d like to take credit for the word, I first came across it when reading The Second Machine Age, a fascinating book by Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson. I remember thinking that it was a perfect word to capture the amplification of both innovation and its disruptive power. By now, readers of this Blog have seen the foundational Visual that describes the digital foundation, innovation accelerators, and disruptive scenarios. What the visual does not convey without the associated narrative is the power of combinatorial.
If we build on top of the visual, we begin to see the complexity at the intersections, the amplification of disruptive power, and the broad implications for the future.
The best way to describe this phenomenon is through examples, so let’s look at six combinatorial scenarios as an overlay. The visual is a bit overwhelming, so a better way to follow the various paths is via this PDF. Here is a description of each scenario. The numbers in the visual above map to the scenarios below, and the colors show the combinations:
Combinatorial Scenario 1
Parking has long been an issue for cities, both in terms of traffic congestion and pollution. In addition, parking revenues are impacted by dumb meters that cannot account for the money contained inside; leading to theft and loss of revenue. As smart cities emerge, smart meters drive additional parking revenue and smart parking solutions help citizens find parking more efficiently – reducing both congestion and emissions.
But what starts as a net gain could evolve to a loss, as smart cities intersect with sharing economy mechanisms. Passengers increasingly find rides through Transportation Network Companies (TNC) that crowd source from a pool of drivers. These TNCs have the potential to disrupt current city transportation networks. Additionally, these sharing mechanisms combine with autonomous vehicles to eliminate the need for parking altogether. A driverless car can move from passenger to passenger in a highly optimized manner, eliminating the need for parking and freeing up city property for other uses. But revenues that went up via smart parking solutions now disappear. Further, this same convergence of shared economy and autonomous vehicles re-imagines the taxi and ride sharing industries and has the potential to disrupt mass transit revenue streams. Why would Uber need drivers when their fleet is fully driverless? So combinatorial innovation gives: enabling ride sharing and creating a platform for us all to become drivers – and it takes away: additional combinations ultimately eliminate the need for any of us to drive.
Combinatorial Scenario 2
Fatalities via car accidents are the biggest source of organ donations today. If autonomous vehicles eliminate 90% of those accidents as Google predicts, organ donations will plummet. This will likely drive an intersection with 3D Printing, as the potential for this outcome drives more investment in enabling 3D printed organs in order to offset the loss. The importance of seeing as many outcomes as possible is highlighted by this scenario, as these intersections are not readily apparent.
Combinatorial Scenario 3
If renewable energy is to reduce or eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, it requires a mechanism to store surplus energy, a bi-directional grid, and an ability to match supply and demand. The same sharing economy mechanisms that optimize the matching of driver and rider, or guest and room provider could enable renewable energy at scale by linking surplus energy with demand. If you also combine the nanotechnology innovation accelerator, you begin to see the same reduction in solar panel size (and therefore broader adoption) that we’ve seen in the electronics area. This highlights a key accelerant: the convergence across the sciences and with technology puts everything on the same exponential curve that technology has enjoyed for years. This information enablement of just about anything is a fundamental driver of exponential progression.
Combinatorial Scenario 4
Now let’s take the last scenario a step further. If you combine renewable energy, sharing economy mechanisms, nanotechnology and the Internet of Things, you create an Energy Internet that does for energy what the Internet did for communications. The energy platform of the future could indeed be the product of combinatorial innovation, with the Internet of Things at its foundation.
Combinatorial Scenario 5
Resource consumption could be a difficult societal challenge as the world sees 3 billion more consumers by 2025, and 5 billion in the middle class by 2030. This speaks to a potential scarcity scenario. But, as the convergence of sciences and technology drives us towards a world of abundance versus scarcity, the need for traditional resources could be eliminated altogether. So which is it? This combinatorial scenario is interesting, as 3D printing enables a maker economy that converges with the sharing and circular economy to alter the resource consumption mix. Autonomous vehicles and renewable energies contribute to this shift, as lighter cars designed for experience change the parts mix, while solar panels require more steel.
Combinatorial Scenario 6
Much like energy, Logistics & Transport is likely transformed in the future. A Logistics Internet could very well emerge that combines the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, and sharing economy mechanisms. In this scenario, the sharing economy kicks into overdrive to leverage the world’s warehouse infrastructure as a shared resource. Supply and demand matching would resemble a room provider being matched with a guest via Airbnb. This sharing would drive a previously unattainable level of productivity. Autonomous vehicles would alter the current transportation paradigm, while the Internet of Things serves as the enabling foundation.
These combinatorial examples make it clear that isolated analysis of any given disruptive scenario is not sufficient. The true disruptive power lies at the intersections. Understanding these combinations helps us exploit disruptive opportunity; versus succumbing to disruptive stress. This same ability to combine and disrupt provides a platform for next generation efficiency and effectiveness. However, isolated efforts won’t get us there; the power lies at the intersections.