Destructive Creative Destruction


You know the list. The technologies, labelled creative destruction, that changed life as we humans knew it: Fire. Pasteurization. The assembly line. Washing machines. Email. Mobile Phones. 

Each of these had a dramatic impact on society, generally decreasing the effort required to do a vital human activity and allowing us to do other, more interesting things1.

Should plastic be added to the list?2 When introduced, it was a major new technology and found broad applications3. The ability to engineer polymers so they are flexible, solid, durable, the right colour and shape, mass-producible, light-weight and low cost lead to the introduction of many new products. Products like plastic bags, straws, packaging. The coating on electrical wires. Cheaper just about anything: shoes, suitcases, light fixtures, flooring, automobile components, toys, machine parts, human body part implants. The list goes on forever.

What has been disrupted by plastic?

Most things plastic are affordable, leading to increased consumption of each item. They tend to be single use, by which I mean two things: disposable or non-repairable. Disposable comes from the low cost – “I’m tossing this out because I can get another one for 3 cents”. Non-repairable because of the process used to create plastic widgets. Stuff made out of other substances known to humans can be engineered and modified. Wood, metal, cement, kryptonite4, plaster can all be fiddled with and/or repaired. Plastic, not so much. To be fair, this is what makes plastic appealing – the ability to spin or mold or extrude it into different shapes. The consequence is that it can’t be fixed because it’s all one piece.

Back to disruption. Here’s some of the ways plastic has changed in our lives:

  • Eating on the run. Plastic containers, plates and utensils made it possible to grab a meal from the takeout window or mall kiosk and eat it anywhere, rather than tethering dining to a venue that could manage ceramic plates and metal forks. 
  • Because plastic changed packaging, it facilitated transportation of goods to distant locations. Thus, more competition in many markets. Lower prices. More choice for consumers.
  • Plastics made many things affordable to more people. Furniture. Cars. Etc. A new social order of ownership emerged.
  • Not coincidentally, with the rise of plastic goods came the era of consumption. Affordable stuff enabled (and required – see above about repairing plastic items) frequent replacement of the items.

Many substitutes, such as plastic bags for paper bags, plastic bumpers on cars, plasticized paper cartons for milk rather than glass bottles, may seem disruptive, especially to the producers of paper bags, metal bumpers and glass milk bottles, but don’t actually result in a new social order.

From my list, plastic has disrupted: sit-down meals, local sourcing of goods, possessions as symbols of wealth, and the need for expertise in repairing many things. Based on fundamental values of community and social connectedness, as well as environmental stewardship, I’d say three of the four of these aren’t good. It could be argued that disrupting possessions as symbols of wealth, is social advancement. Otherwise, plastic disruption has not been good to us, even thought there are plenty of benefits to the use of plastic.

This disruptive technology (generally considered a good thing as it ushers in a new approach to old problems, makes life easier and richer) had negative consequences.

The earth has a problem with plastic. It doesn’t decay, ever. Even kryptonite decays. Plastic was celebrated for its disposableness, while ironically its permanence has clogging up the landfill, oceans, and microcirculation of the earth’s creatures. Oops, we created a monster. Vacuous consumerism snowballs the problem of overflowing landfill, making the monster multi-headed, with enormous tentacles and an awful smell.

Sometimes, what seems like a good idea at the time isn’t. Plastic isn’t the first time the true impact of a novel product wasn’t realized until time and mass consumption had gone by. Cigarette smoking. Fossil fuel emissions. Drugs with fatal side effects in one-in-a-million patients.

Fortunately, the plastic pollution crisis presents all kinds of opportunities for new creative destruction. Constructive creative destruction, please.

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1Fire allowed us to cook food and stay warm, increasing survival. Pasteurization was a process that made milk and other foods safer and allowed them to be transported further, increasing both the availability of food and the livelihood of producer. After the invention of the assembly line, cars became more accessible to different socio-economic groups and then expanded their horizons. Washing machines and other appliances are credited with allowing women the ability to lead a life outside the house, as it became possible to spend less than all of their time doing household chores. I don’t have to explain how email and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but future generations will need to be told.

2It piqued my interest when I saw it on a list of disruptive technologies in ‘Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence’ by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, so thanks to them for making me think.

3For a great summary of the history of plastic, I recommend this https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

4Kidding, kryptonite isn’t on the list, it isn’t real.

An Annual Celebration of Innovation.

Is the concept of an annual celebration of innovation a contradiction? If a thing happens regularly – like the OCE Discoveryconference, can it do justice to the new, the creative, the evolving?

This was my ninth Discovery conference – a wonderful event held each year in Toronto where all things new in technology and business are showcased. A few thousand people attend, from academic researchers, startup and established businesses, to government representatives and other investors that support them. And they bring exhibits of their new technologies. There are talks, speed networking sessions, pitch competitions and plenty of catching up with new and old colleagues.

My first impression of this year was that it wasn’t as exciting as previous years. On reflection, I decided that was the point. And that’s exciting. Disruption isn’t coming from the introduction of a new thing, like mobile phones in 2009 to shift how we talk to each other, or affordable cars in 1913 to allow every person the mobility of owning an automobile. Disruption was coming into everything. Every business. Every industry. Every aspect of life.

Evolving areas of technology represented at the conference included:

  • artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data utilization, 
  • 5G connectivity and synchronous internet connectivity for enhanced user experience, 
  • sustainability and cutting down greenhouse gases, 
  • autonomous vehicles, 
  • internet of things. 

None of these come as a big surprise. The startling part was the myriad applications for these technologies. Here’s a sampling of what I saw:

Innovation in operations in stable, mature industries with sustained product demand:

  • Beer and steel manufacturers optimizing input resource utilization
  • Enhanced sustainability in agriculture production

Industries offering the next version product:

  • Established players in telecommunications getting ready to deliver 5G
  • The introduction of autonomous vehicles marching forward, with an emphasis on testing.

Advances in capabilities of established industries:

  • Applications for monitoring and processing data, especially in healthcare
  • Augmented reality to facilitate retail or business collaboration
  • Artificial intelligence in accounting

All examples of existing businesses and industries incorporating new technologies, primarily to provide the same products to the same customers, only better. For the most part, this is what we call component innovation, rather than architectural innovation which destroys the entire industry. Enhancement rather than destruction.

In the category of new industries, there was crickets as a source of protein, but even this was discussed as a growth business with scale and distribution challenges, rather than an emerging one seeking market acceptance.

And cannabis. Another industry out of its early stage and into a growth phase.

And Space. This surprised me a little, except that space exploration is of interest both as a potential solution to the stretched resources of the Earth and as a new aspect of tourism.

The most startling, clever idea that was perfectly obvious after I saw it but never crossed my mind before that, was the establishment of hazelnut farms in Ontario. Big demand for the product. Uses existing resources (Ontario climate and agricultural history) with a few enabling tweaks (climate change, new cultivars). Incremental technology innovation.

Another great year of discovery at Discovery. Everything old is new again. Now that’s innovation.