Michael S. Tomczyk 
Technology - Innovation - Education
Home        Future Digest
We can all see the future, if we look closely enough.  There are signals all around us - some of them are weak, some strong.  The future is not limited to technologies, although it sometimes seems like that.  The future involves public policies that encourage progress, marketing strategies, and social trends.  We live in a world where everything is changing, constantly - pulled forward by positive developments such as new scientific discoveries, and pushed forward by negative drivers such as economic crises.  In my opinion, the future will depend on our ability to identify and solve problems.  On this page I offer a few observations and comments on the future, including notes on some of my own activities as an "innovation champion" and futurist. 

"When memories exceed dreams, the end is near." - Michael Hammer, co-author of "Re-engineering the Corporation."

"Future Related" Activities
Where is the Solar Energy Surge?  Recently I co-taught a class with Marshall Meyer on solar energy and related economic and trade issues facing China.  The main issue is that China overbuilt their solar manufacturing capacity, which resulted in a glut of solar panels on the market, which wound up crashing the cost/price of solar panels.  The drop in solar pricing put several U.S. and European solar companies out of business, and resulted in the U.S. and Europe imposing tariffs on Chinese solar technology, accusing China of illegal dumping.  The question that I've been pondering is this:  for decades, solar experts have claimed that what we needed for solar energy to finally catch on was for the costs to drop really low - closer to fossil fuel costs.  So now we have historically low prices on solar panels and yet there is no surge in solar energy demand.  We don't see solar panels on every house in America.  We don't see many utility scale solar farms (except in Germany where 5-6% of energy comes from solar, and maybe in California in the U.S. where we have a "million solar roof" initiative started by Arnold Schwarzenegger).  So if price elasticity isn't driving up demand for solar energy, what is keeping the world from adopting solar?  Actually, the intermediaries who install the systems charge a lot which drives up the price, and also there are connection charges and structural impediments imposed by utilities which have slowed solar growth, not to mention the lack of storage batteries to even out the power capture and use.  So it's not enough to crash the price and flood the market with solar panels, to force the world to use more solar energy.  It takes a balanced, integrated approach and more than just low prices.

The Impact of Globalization on the Future.
  I recently responded to a LinkedIn forum topic...GLOBALIZATION: Advantage or Disadvantage?  Here are my comments:  The flattening of the world is analogous to free market economics. If open markets are good for economics, it stands to reason that on balance, globalization is good for innovation. I know that many Americans bemoan the loss of jobs and manufacturing to cheaper overseas but you can't have open markets, open innovationa and true globalization - a REALLY flat world - without some consequences. No pain, no gain.

For the U.S., positive aspects include cost savings from outsourcing and offshoring, access to more science graduates, etc. Negatives include the loss of our manufacturing base and migration of jobs to cheaper overseas markets. However, while the U.S. has lost jobs and functions, we've also gained direct access to the resources of the entire world. Are we smart enough to take advantage of this access in a profoundly networked world? Time will tell.

It is often said that globalization is enabling the "democratization" of technological innovation, opening the innovation process to everyone, everywhere. As globalization fuels the open innovation trend, we can expect some interesting innovations to emerge from the increasingly diversified pool of innovators.

Globalization is already incentivizing innovation in many developing nations - most notably India and China - which not only benefits western nations/economies, but also encourages technological solutions at the "bottom of the pyramid."

Smaller countries such as Singapore and South Korea are reaping the benefits of globalization - which not only benefits those nations, but more importantly, enables those nations to produce innovations that benefit the world. Singapore played a lead role in developing diagnostics for the SARS virus and is the home of the Biopolis. South Korea is a leader in consumer electronics. Products developed for India and
China must meet optimum price-performance goals for markets measured in billions...but innovations for those markets can also be brought back to the U.S. where we also need more cost effective solutions, especially in healthcare and medicine. These are only a few examples.

Also, cultural differences will produce new forms of innovation. We know this because technologies vary from region to region now - Russia developed a different type of ceramic technologies from the U.S., China uses passive solar hot water heaters which are rarely seen in the West. India is developing $10 to $50 tablet computers - which traces its origins to Dr. Negraponte's original challenge to develop a $100 computer (One Laptop Per Child).  I can appreciate this, having played a role in the launch of home computers, myself.   I am personally excited by the potential for "cultural innovations" that will result from globalization.
Emerging Technologies and The Future of Real Estate:  In June, I taught a Wharton Executive Education session on "Emerging Technologies and the Future of Real Estate? to members of the China Real Estate Developers and Investors Association.  This dual language session included my "DreamProject" exercise that challenges teams to come up with projects drawing inspiration from emerging technologies and examples of global innovations in real estate buildings and communities. 
The innovations were some of the best I've seen since I created this exercise.  Projects included a Sky City, Solar Mountain, Space Community, Waste Efficient Sky Scraper (for New York), Sky Garden River Community (for Guangzhou) and a Shape-Shifting Bubble Construction project. I am always impressed by the enthusiasm and creativity of Chinese management students and the CREDIA group was especially inspiring.  I attended the class dinner July 26 and had a chance to chat with the Chinese managers and investors who are helping to shape the future of real estate in China.  We agreed that new construction and alternative energy solutions will be key to real estate development in the coming decade. 
Emerging Technologies and The Future of the Auto Industry.  Recently I shared some insights concerning the auto industry with General Motors' innovation team, which is in the process of joining the Mack Center at Wharton.  I shared some of my own insights about the future of the auto industry, which is closely intertwined with alternative fuels, electric and natural gas utilities, and the national power grid.  In the future, as battery life and mileage enable more electric cars, electric utilities will become partners of automakers and will provide incentives for utility customers to purchase electric cars and home charging stations. 
My personal opinion is that several technology thresholds will need to be achieved for electric cars to succeed in the mass market: 1) electric cars will need to achieve a 400 mile radius on a single charge, 2) a "charging station" infrastructure is needed - for residential garages and office parking lots, 3) electric car batteries will need to be chargeable in 10 minutes (which could be a partial charge) and 4) for long commutes, highways and emergency charges, a network of fueling stations will be needed - these do NOT have to be located at existing gas stations. 
There are downsides however.  If a large portion of workers start using electric cars, and an overnight thunderstorm knocks out power to 25% of all homes, it would mean that 25% of the workforce can't get to their jobs in the morning because their electric cars didn't charge!  There are many other game-changing considerations and implications for car companies, gas stations, autopart suppliers and public utilities. 
Signals That Reveal the Future
Universities are becoming Economic Innovation Zones
Several leading universities are in the process of expanding their role from research and education centers, to economic development centers - which is a critical need in the current economic crisis.  Universities are ideal venues for job creation, venture formation, community development and commercialization of emerging technologies. 
Innovation - Shortfall or Delay?
My friend Dr. Michael Mandel has observed and documented the reality that many innovations have NOT achieved their expected results.  Gene therapy, fuel cells, medical cures, biofuels, alternative energy and many others have not yet achieved the anticipated breakthroughs and commercial impact that was predicted in the 1990s.  The question is, do these shortfalls represent failures, or delays?  My view is that these technologies are taking longer than expected to achieve results...success will require the right combination of time, investment, infrastructure, government policies and market acceptance and more technology breakthroughs--which is different for each technology.
What's Needed to Make the Future Happen Faster?
Smart Grids and Smart Metering Systems
I have been privileged to provide advice as a consultant to pioneers in smart metering.  Most people don't realize it yet, but the national energy grid is not currently set up to support a massive surge of electric cars, residential solar and wind systems.  To make significant progress, smart grid technologies and grid-scale storage systems are needed at the utility level.  Most of these will be provided by entrepreneurial ventures and corporations.  For these smart metering system to work, utilities may have to embed protocols in their software - like IT departments currently embed protocols for web design applications.  Homes and buildings will need smart metering systems in combination with alternative energy systems, to lower energy use and transition to clean energy sources.  The goal - and eventual outcome - of these efforts will be to produce net-zero (or near net-zero) energy use buildings. 
Electric Cars: Mileage, Home Fueling and Storm Effects
One of the most exciting developments from the auto industry is the focus on electric cars.  The current generation does not yet provide 400 miles in travel distance on a single battery charge, or a 5 minute battery recharge at an "energy station" - however, these goals have been achieved in research labs and will eventually arrive in the market. 
One change we can expect in the coming 10 years will be the advent of home fueling -- we will charge our electric cars overnight in the garage and at charging stations where we park at our workplace.  There are many other considerations, which I have discussed with senior executives at General Motors, Eaton Corporation and other firms involved in the future of transportation.  Some of these involve technologies, and some involve market strategies.