Why Systems Thinking, Rather Than New Technologies, Will Jump-Start the Clean-Tech Economy
Whether they focus on wind power, solar power, clean coal, geothermal, biofuels, or something even more exotic, most efforts to wean the world economy from its dependence on oil view the challenge in technological terms. And the bulk of both public and private-sector investments have been made in companies using conventional business models aimed at fitting clean technologies into existing systems.
Sadly, history shows that this rarely works. Startups predictably struggle when competing head-on against incumbents in established markets. Disruptive market forces could over many years enable clean technologies to supplant fossil fuels the way the PC replaced the mainframe. But we won't have to wait that long if we can deliberately effect a wholesale shift in our energy infrastructure. To be sure, this is an ambitious goal that requires thinking on a grand scale. The key, I believe, is to understand that in a major infrastructural shift, technologies don't replace other technologies. Rather, systems replace systems.
Thomas Edison grasped the systemic nature of technological transformation a century ago when he introduced the electric light bulb. He realized that the technology he envisioned—no matter how innovative—couldn't by itself sweep aside the kerosene-based lighting industry.
Instead of asking how he could solve the technical problem of inventing a light bulb, Edison asked how he could get consumers to switch from kerosene to electricity. He understood that despite the many advantages of electric light, it would replace kerosene only if it had its own, economically competitive network.
So, while scores of people worldwide worked on inventing a light bulb, Edison conceived a fully operational system. His technical platform included generators, meters, transmission lines, and substations, and he mapped out both how they would interact technically and how they would combine in a profitable business.