By Steve Gerritson, WCTA Chair, Vice President, EDC of Seattle & King County
Those of us in the field of clean tech (including just about everyone reading this newsletter) spend a lot of time thinking about change, particularly the change associated with new technology. It’s easy to get excited about the potential of a new energy source or a way to reduce the amount of fuel required to run an engine. Yet we often forget that there are those who support the status quo, sometimes for selfish reasons but sometimes with legitimate concerns. And because it is ultimately the market that will decide, it is usually the economics, rather than the technology, that is the driving force behind change.
It follows that the easiest change to accept is an incremental one, because of which no party is injured – for example, the shift from rotary to push-button phones. Such examples are rare, however, and the more usual case is when a new technology pushes aside an old one. Electrification is now taken for granted, but one hundred years ago, as electric power began to become available, it made possible the use of appliances like refrigerators. The widespread adoption of electric refrigerators destroyed an entire industry, that of preserving, and later making and delivering ice. It seems silly now, but at the time it was quite disruptive.
The same processes are going on today, and it’s interesting (to me, at least) to watch how society has evolved “channels” to deal with them. An industry in an “old” technology has several options: it can admit defeat and close up shop (does anyone use a typewriter anymore?); it can adapt, and begin making and selling the new technology (either by internal development or acquisition); or, if it has the clout, it can fight (think of the oil industry today).
The last example brings in an additional factor: government. Regulation, taxation policy, and other public actions can obviously influence the course of technological change. Requirements for ethanol in gasoline, for example, were put in place ostensibly for public health reasons, and were (and are still being) fought by the oil companies, in Congress, in court, and in the media.
All of which is to say that technological change is rarely smooth, and often has little to do with the merits of the new technology. And yet it keeps happening. Funny how that works.