Obstacles to Innovation: Technology or Culture?

08/28/2015 - 05:29

E.T. Wilson

What is the biggest barrier to replacing the automobiles of the last century with new modes of transportation?

As a general rule, Baby Boomers who grew up lusting over gas guzzlers continue to elevate demand for new cars. For such pre-digital generations, cars were variously a coming-of-age marker, a status symbol, a hobby, and a passion. They are also entering retirement with a lot more money to spend than younger workers, who are either struggling with underemployment (and the associated wage-depression) or siphoning off any spare cash to pay down student loans.

More importantly, this demand for personal vehicles comes at the expense of expanded public transit, and requires extensive infrastructure to provide for everything from parking space to navigable roads. The increasing infrastructure is infringing upon bikers, pedestrians, and city planners looking to save more space for development. The rules of the road, it would seem, are often zero-sum.

However, Millennials also drive (and by and large, drive solo, just like Boomers), yet simultaneously demand transit alternatives, including ride-sharing services and public programs like rail and bus. The high costs of education hurts their appetite for cars and they are flocking to walkable/bikeable cities in droves.

For digital natives, awash with apps, gadgets, and social media, cars are just another tool—and efficiency (from a practical as well as sustainable standpoint) is key.

What’s That Spell (Alphabet joke)? Driverless cars of course!

Given Millennials general lack of interest as a group in new cars, the Boomers will wield greater influence as a consumer group. This could potentially lead to autonomous vehicles having a bumpy road to adoption. Then again, the technology behind them is only one part of a much longer equation. Google’s test-drives with the smart cars has hardly been accident-free; yet the overwhelming cause of the accidents has been human error, demonstrating that law-abiding robo-cars may actually pose a threat to human drivers with a more tenuous knowledge or respect for the rules of the road.

This has led some to posit that driverless cars must be an all-or-nothing technology: either they get prohibited from entering public roadways or human drivers (and their cars) are outlawed in favor of the safer, smarter machines.

What is the leading impediment to the shift away from big roads, countless parking lots, and millions of single-passenger cars crowding the streets? Is it slowly perfecting the technology (and laws) to replace them or a generation too ingrained in its wasteful and dangerous habits to make room for the next big thing? Only time will tell...

Old Habits, New Toys

The case of driverless cars may just be a lens magnifying how innovation struggles against generational values in other areas.

Nursing, a field replete with “non-traditional students” (i.e., adult professionals either returning to school or earning Continuing Education credits through universities), lags significantly behind other industries in terms of technological adoption. While the attention focused on fledgling technologies and promising ideas disguise this fact, the scale of disruption presented by Electronic Health Records is telling.

In a 2009 study conducted through Bradley University’s nursing school, nursing students were given PDAs (the study’s term for tablets, primarily iPads) and interviewed about their experiences integrating the devices into their clinical practicum. The program produced some mixed results: while students rated the tablets as highly useful for obvious reasons like accessing information quickly and aiding their communication with patients, they struggled with such basic considerations as keeping the devices charged.

Efficiency and productivity can have a hard time competing with old habits and familiarity—even in medicine.

Wait and See

While there is some migration among the generations as far as values, priorities, and digital engagement is concerned, the general trend seems to be that today’s young people are ready for mass transit systems that integrate driverless cars whereas older consumers are slowing the shift by preserving demand for traditional cars and the infrastructure that supports them.

Only when the technology is ready for mass-adoption will it be clear whether the market is ready as well.