I’m musically dysfunctional. My shower cringes when I squeak-out a tune, and I wouldn’t know an A note from a G. I find it mystifying, therefore, how a musician can compose an original melody given the amount of music written since the dawn of man.
The reality is composers create new pieces, which both leverage what they’ve studied, heard, and played along with their understanding of music theory. Many composers will admit there’s little originality in music, just the revision, mixing and merging of existing musical arrangements.
Until the explosion of the internet and dot.com madness, starting in 1997, it seemed like ideas for new businesses was dwindling. While the demand for personal computers (PCs), enterprise servers and storage units, and associated software and technologies was skyrocketing, for the most part, companies were simply churning out better, and sometimes cheaper cars, TVs, appliances, stereo systems, packaged and manufactured goods.
The introduction of the internet in 1993, throttled the Information Age into overdrive with hundreds (if not thousands) of Internet companies being founded seemingly overnight. Between 1990 and 1997, the percentage of US households who owned a computer increased from 15% to 35% as consumers scrambled to take advantage of the emerging opportunities to purchase online, research goods and services, communicate in ways never thought possible, and conduct business in real-time with colleagues across the global.
Then everything expoded.
Companies who’d offered their services and product for free, hoping brand awareness would enable them to reap a profit, sank into debt. Investors wrote checks, with the hope of recouping their investments, realized what appeared sterling on paper didn’t always translate into viability businesses.
Out of the puddle of the popped bubble, surviving companies restructured, rethought, and in some instances, relaunched themselves. The lessons of the dot.com bubble were the building blocks for new ways of merchandising.
Technological Advancements and Society
In 1922, American sociologist, statistician, and educator William F. Ogburn introduced the theory of technological determinism, which asserts a society’s technology drives its social structure and cultural values. New forms of technology, however, can’t occur unless the society has already gained a level of knowledge and expertise in that specific discipline. His theory has four parts:
Invention: The process by which new kinds of technology are produced.
Accumulation: The growth of technology, resulting from new inventions, which exceeds the decline of old technologies. The old inventions then become obsolete or forgotten.
Diffusion: The spread of new ideas from one culture to another or from one field of activity to another, leading to the convergence of different technologies, which combine to form new inventions.
Adjustment: The process by which non-material aspect of society adjust to new technologies. The delay in adoption new technologies causes cultural lag.
Tipping Point Leads to Friction
Until about ten years ago, the pace of innovation, especially information technology and personal computing apps and devices, disseminated or diffused slow enough that consumers and workers could kept up. The new norm of communicating through email, and two or three social media channels, principally Facebook, was enthusiastically embraced, along with the ability to research and purchase products online, watch YouTube videos, get breaking news online with a click, and browse multitudes of websites.
The original brick-sized mobile phone, which cost around $899, morphed into the popular Blackberry in 2002. Making calls, getting email and surfing the internet could be done in the palm of one’s hand. In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone, a truly revolutionary leap in personal electronics.
While the first laptop computers (Osbourn 1 system) emerged in 1981, they were unwieldy, expensive, and had limited capabilities, and even less battery power. It wasn’t until 1995 when the Windows 95 operating system and Intel Pentium processor were introduced, standardizing the operation of laptops and supporting the addition of CD-ROMs, and optical, floppy, and hard disk drives that laptop sales finally took off.
2007 was considered the “Year of the Laptop” with shipments rising 21% to 31.6 million units. While desktops still outsold laptops, by the following year, they were about equal. Today, the sale of laptops, tablets, and other mobile devises dramatically exceed that of desktops. The jump in sales is partially due to educational institutions requiring students to use a laptop for their school work.
In a sense, 2007 was a tipping point with large percentage of the population rapidly adopting and using technology, while others were left behind. Ogburn defines this phenomenon as cultural lag, essentially the time it takes for society to catch up with technological innovations. He concluded social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag.
Splintering of Society
For the most part, society has been able to catch up with technology. Automobiles replaced horse and buggies. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity supplanted fireplaces, chamber pots, and candles. Mobile phones are the preferred option to LAN lines, and the affordability and functionality of smart phones and tablets have eroded the need for a personal laptop. Generally, most people understand the fundamentals of computing from creating and saving documents to accessing and utilizing the internet.
The problem is the “fundamentals of computing” aren’t enough to excel in today’s accelerated economy. To succeed, most businesses need to step-up their technological sophistication. Even the neighborhood florist, cobbler, and dry cleaner need to embrace technology, developing search-engine optimized web sites, utilizing social media to engage customers, running pay-per-click ads to attract new customers, and enabling mobile and online payments.
Similarly, many people who’ve spend decades in high-technology are experiencing the realization their skills may be obsolete. A 50-year old developer who’s only programmed in Java and C# is considered a dinosaur. A marketer who’s focused on developing launch materials and web content is outdated by not knowing the ins-and-outs of customer relationship and automation platforms, SEO/SEM, and inbound and outbound marketing. An IT professional, for a company that hasn’t embraced the cloud, would have difficulties finding a new job.
As a result, a significant number of people are being left behind with no hope of catching up. The reverberations are far-reaching with entire communities collapsing when their key industries outsource or simply close their doors.
The Musicality of Reinvention
What can be done? Just like composers maintain most music isn’t original, but revised, remixed and reimagined, there’s a need to both create job opportunities that build upon emerging technologies, and look for opportunities to make what’s old new.
For instance, even though gas prices have fallen, consumers desire more fuel efficient, including electric cars. The American car industry, and conversely manufacturing and jobs, has perked up with the introduction of the Chevrolet Bolt, Ford Focus and C-Max, and Tesla.
The expense of staying at hotels and eating-out, coupled with falling gas prices, has increased the demand (and manufacture) for campers and travel trailers. This trend is expected to continue as more people realize the enjoyment of taking their temporary home on the road. Recreational vehicles are no longer just for retired couples.
The introduction of toy haulers ̶ which meld a traditional trailer for cooking, dining, bathing, and sleeping with space for carrying motorcycles, jet-skis, snow mobiles, kayaks, and sports equipment — has created a new market. Their popularity has launched several other renditions (or compositions) of trailers, including lightweight and destination trailers. The former is more aerodynamic, making them easier to tow using energy-efficient vehicles.
Increasing demand for energy efficiency and clean energy has also led to an uptick in wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing. Conversely, the need for wind turbine technicians – people who install, maintain, and repair wind turbines – will increase 108% by 2024.
Originally windmills were used for pumping water or milling grain, hence the name windmill. This very old technology has become new with turbine blades up to 60 meters in length, generating up to 7.5 MW per turbine.
Another emerging field, which is the direct results of wind farms, is the need for drone operators to survey and capture data on the performance and upkeep of turbines and blades. Drone operators are also being hired to survey crops, electrical grids and other utilities, tank farms, and infrastructure likes bridges and roadways.
Prior to the availability of drones, helicopters and small planes were used for surveying. Dramatically smaller drones, which can be operated from the ground, have created manufacturing and usage opportunities. A new tune for an old challenge of inspecting large structures.
Housing Harmoniously Transforming
The demand for green building materials – recycled concrete, FSC-certified lumber, building systems, solar power products, etc. – is projected to increase 11% annually to $86.6 billion in 2017. These materials will be used for both residential and nonresidential building.
Housing, like music, is constantly evolving, and one of the latest concertos is tiny and mobile houses. At first, they were curiosity, built by people who wanted to downsize, couldn’t afford a larger home or enjoyed the challenge of building a fully-equipped home on a flat-bed utility trailer.
Cass Community Social Services in Detroit are building tiny houses to help lift people from homelessness. The houses are around 250 square feet in size so two or more can be snuggled on a traditional residential lot.
In the 1940, one-third of Michigan’s population lived in Detroit with half of the state’s population living in the Detroit metropolitan area. The region was booming with Ford, Chevrolet, General Motors (GM), AMC, Chrysler, and Oldsmobile churning out iconic luxury and muscle cars like the El Dorado, Camaro, Mustang, and Charger. The car industry started to falter in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the price of gas started climbing, and consumers purchasing more stylish, compact, and fuel efficient foreign vehicles.
As car manufacturers started to falter, laying off workers, and some eventually closing, the Detroit economy spiraled downward. In the 1950’s, Detroit’s population was nearly 1.9 million people. Six decades, it declined to just over 700,000, a startling 62% decrease. As people lost their jobs, they could no longer afford their houses.
In the 1960’s Detroit had the highest rate of home ownership in the US. Forty years later, it had the highest rate of home foreclosures in the nation. In 2008, nearly 5% of households in the Detroit metropolitan area were in some stage of foreclosure. And since 2002, at least 150,000 Detroit residents have lost their homes for failing to pay their taxes or because the landlord who they rented from failed to pay their taxes.
The tiny houses being built by Cass Community Social Services sell for $1 a month per square foot, making the mortgage $250 per month, which is affordable for someone making $10,000 per year. In addition, a house can be paid off within 7 to 8 years, providing the homeowner with a permanent place to live, and the ability to purchase a house worth $40,000 to $50,000.
In cities of all sizes, across the United States, officials and non-profits are looking for creative ways of providing housing that’s affordable, energy efficient, and fosters strong communities. Shipping containers are being turned into homes, student housing, and incubators for start-ups. Abandoned industrial and manufacturing facilities are being converted into apartments. And intergenerational housing and communities are popping up, enabling residents to care for each other and share common amenities like dining hall, kitchen, children’s play and hobby rooms, and exercise equipment and facilities.
An interesting re-invention of something old becoming new is the work being done by Rails-to-Trails, which pulls up unused railroad tracks, and turns them into multi-use trails. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan is a 428-mile trail network, which when completed will provide locals with safe travel routes and encourage exercise and outdoor recreation.
The trails are in Cameron County, Texas, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country with a third of its residents having incomes that are below the poverty line. The trail is expected to create 453 new jobs, increase tourism revenue by $40 million, and reduce medical bills by encouraging residents to use the trails and recreational areas for walking, biking, running, and paddling.
Closing the Cultural Gap
There’s no overlooking the cultural gap between those who are keeping pace with technology and those being left behind or madly sprinting to catch up. Adding to the issue is the need for fewer workers as companies automate, downsize, outsource, and relocate.
One solution is to derive new occupations from existing one, which take advantages of technology, but don’t require an extensive technological background and build upon existing skills, such as auto manufacturing, construction, healthcare services, and people management. The challenge is reimagining what’s possible to move from invention to diffusion.
Thanks to Dr. Richard Brinkman, the author of Cultural Economics, and one of my beloved professors at Portland State University. His classes have influenced my point-of-view of economic growth and how it’s tied to shifts in cultural norms.