JOHANNESBURG – The word ‘technology’ appears in the written and spoken word all the time.
We see it written in high-powered journals and magazines, but we also see it in very popularist magazines. One will hear technology being spoken about at cocktail parties and at business conferences.
Senior politicians tell us that we are entering a world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)), which is based on advanced technology.
We get told that the 4IR implies that we need to introduce computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics into school curriculum.
So let us pause for a moment to decide what technology is. If you ask a dozen university professors to define technology you are likely to get a dozen different answers. Answers are typically something like: Well, it is applied science developed for productive output. Let us now compare the concept of technology with the concept of love. If you ask anybody if they know what love is, they will all say yes. Then say: “please give me a written definition”.
Nobody can do that. You can love your spouse, mother, child, dog, but they are not competing in the same space. You can love long walks on the beach, or the sounds of your favourite music. Defining the word ‘love’ now looks much more complex.
Imagine a room full of people sitting in a meeting and one walks to the window and looks up at the sky and remarks; “I can see an interesting cloud.”
The others say, “Describe it accurately”. That is impossible.
He can say: well, it’s white, nearly white, fuzzy at the edges, but changing as I watch it…. Nobody would be able to draw an accurate coloured picture of what he was seeing. That is the same as trying to define technology in words.
So years ago I came to the conclusion that, like love, you cannot describe technology accurately in words. You require imagery and the correct feel.
Now for another analogy story. A fellow has a wheelbarrow in his garden and he notices that it is starting to rust. He recalls that he has a scientist as a neighbour, so he asks him,”How can I rust-proof my wheelbarrow?”
A couple of days later the scientist comes over to tell him that he has consulted all his tables and equations and he has the perfect scientific answer.
He says,”Gold-plate the wheelbarrow, it will then not rust.”
Of course that is a totally accurate science answer. But the wheelbarrow owner answers,””Well thanks, but I cannot afford that, it is only a wheelbarrow.”
So the scientist, being smart, says that he also has a second-best answer. Silverplate the wheelbarrow.
The two continue to debate the problem until they come up with an answer. They paint the wheelbarrow with a paint that adheres to metal. That is a technological solution. So now we have established that technology is a science solution, which is economically viable.
But there is a third factor. The law. You are not allowed to carry a boot-load of dynamite down the freeway in your car, even if it is the most economical way of transporting the scientifically formulated chemical.
So a viable technology also has to abide by health and safety legislation, and a whole lot of other rules and protocols of society.
So now in an attempt to define technology in words, the closest I will get is to come up with a rather colloquial definition, and that is: “Technology is a science solution, which is economically viable within the bounds of society policies”.
But I prefer to remember this by means of a diagram. Imagine a triangle with science at one vertex, economics at another and policies at the third. Technology is then like a blob in the middle of the triangle, and like a cloud, is constantly changing shape, as pressures from the three vertices come to bear on it.
So an improvement to a technological solution can undoubtedly occur due to a new scientific development.
But equally, technology can change because of an economics alteration. If the coal price were to drop by 50 percent then a whole slew of technologies applied in industry, would change.
Some years ago, deep underground in a mine, some electrical wiring caught fire. The plastic insulation burned and gave off noxious fumes, which killed some miners.
In a very short time a judge ruled that the use of that plastic insulation was now illegal underground. Instantly that ruling opened the market for an alternative insulation for electrical wire. So a technology change presented itself.
So you don’t have to be a scientist or engineer to come up with a technology changing idea. One can appear from any of the vertices of the triangle.
A mere process change can also be a technology advancement. If you discover a shortcut to drive to work, that is a technology advance. You did not re-train the driver, alter the car, or change the petrol, but you now save time, fuel, and maintenance costs.
Business operates on the basis of a set of technologies, which change like the clouds. To hear any business leader say; “”Well we are not a technology organisation”,is just plain wrong and short-sighted. I hear that sentiment far too often.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. He carries out business strategy development and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients. Stratek@pixie.co.za