Today’s Daily Prompt asks the question “What will the next must-have technological innovation be? Jetpacks? Hoverboards? Wind-powered calculators?”
I live in the high technology world. I have for the last twenty five years earned my living in the computer industry designing, writing, supporting, administering and writing about computer software. I have to say that sometimes questions like this can really get my goat.
To start, what do we mean by innovation? If we go to dictionary.com we learn that it should be defined as “something new or different introduced”. So where do we draw the line at what is an “innovation” and what is just a slightly different iteration of an existing design?
Perhaps we mean the introduction of a new technology? In a way this just shifts the question. Is, for example, the iPhone an innovation, a new technology or just an update to an existing technology. We could argue any of the three.
Let’s have a look at some examples that can be clearly distinguished as innovations. The big two in the twentieth century were the internal combustion engine and antibiotics, most notably penicillin. Here we can see two examples of technology that changed the world. For me the two post WWII examples would be the transistor and the computer.
These are the real world changers, real innovation.
We can also ask what we mean by “must-have.” Here it is far too easy to slip into the world of marketing and consumerism. Do we mean the thing that teenagers in the 1% of the world that can afford the newest gadget or fashion item. The replacement for the smartphone that replaced the iPod that replaced the exercise shoe that replaced the boombox?
Or do we mean the next innovation that is required for a better life? Do we mean something such as an affordable form of personal transport or a drug that stops us dying from minor bacterial infections?
I choose to answer our question in the latter, larger sense. What will be the next example of a new technology that makes the world a healthier and happier place for a large part of its human population?
Well there is an answer that comes from a leading technologist, a man who has made a considerable fortune in the computer industry. If you are reading this you almost certainly use a working example of a particular type several times a day and consider it totally mundane.
Last year Bill Gates sponsored a design competition to come up with a toilet that is affordable and usable in third world countries. About one third of the world does not have clean water and according to Gates:
The flush toilets we use in the wealthy world are irrelevant, impractical and impossible for 40 per cent of the global population, because they often don’t have access to water, and sewers, electricity, and sewage treatment systems.
Food or water tainted with faecal matter causes intestinal diseases that kill 1.5 million children annually – a figure higher than deaths from AIDS and malaria combined.
Inventing new toilets is one of the most important things we can do to reduce child deaths and disease and improve people’s lives.
So for a large part of the world the “next must-have technological innovation” is a simple, working toilet. Let’s hope they don’t have to wait too much longer.