Estuaries and Technology Innovation

Posted on Sunday 9 December 2012

Some of the most insightful innovations arise from the collision of two seemingly unrelated things.

And the miracle of such innovations is that often after the collision has happened, the resulting creative idea seems so incredibly obvious.

In biology, Mother Nature has known this for a very long time. Take the estuary, for example, in its strictest definition a place where freshwater from inland rivers mixes together freely with coastal salt water. Both the fresh water and salt water biological zones have their own varieties of teeming life. But when you mix the two both ecosystems become challenged and rupture, especially when that mix first happens, such as when a river becomes so flooded from unusual rains that it charts a new path out to the coast.

The biological result is explosive. The water turns brackish. Fluids and nourishment for one ecosystem are naturally toxic to the other. Plants, fish, and animals forced from the fresh water into the salt water generally either die or run back to the safety of their original homes. This is a bloodbath that goes on every day all over the world, not quietly and with much devastation.

But there are many that find a way to survive. By exploring how to live, with conscious thought from some and by autonomic reactions from others, from the highest forms of life to the microorganisms. Some do not make it. But for those that do and for the resulting region, this land of intermixing ecosystems is known by biologists as a region with some of the most rapidly evolving lifeforms in the world. And where it happens on a grand scale, grand new creations emerge. Such as the glorious Manatee that thrives in the waters of Florida’s everglades, something that would likely never have emerged like this anywhere else.

One of the more interesting aspects of this to me is how, even though many of us are quite aware of rapid biological evolution at the boundaries of the estuary, we do not try this enough in product or service innovations of our own. We instead tend to try to innovate within the existing silos we have already established as our own turf. In the computer world, examples are to refine things like battery life or processor speed. But the result is just a better computer rather than something truly radical.

One wonderful exception to this is the Ford Motor Company’s most recent EV+ line of hybrid cars, which somehow found a way to create brilliant innovation by exploring the collision of two seemingly unrelated technology ideas.

What were the ideas? The first was of course the hybrid car, which in itself represents the integration of electric and gas engine drives in a single vehicle. And the second was the software-based Personal Assistant, which is most commonly seen in smartphones like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s new Android feature “Google Now” (currently present in its “Jelly Bean” OS iteration). With the former, SIRI answers questions on demand via local and remote databases, and uses a version of artificial intelligence to come up with what it thinks is the best response. With the latter, when you pull up a Google search screen in the latest Android OS version, the device anticipates where you might need to be going based on appointments coming up, looks up routes and traffic conditions without being asked, and then tells you — without being asked — when you should probably head out so you will arrive on time.

What do these two ideas have in common? Not much, you might think. But what Ford engineers did was take the conventional Hybrid concept and first of all have the car “learn” where home might be based on GPS information in the car (and other data you might manually enter on your own). And its Hybrid, like other Hybrid vehicles, is constantly alternating the use of electric power and gas fuel consumption, all with the idea of balancing to achieve what its onboard computers think is the right mix of both.

But here is where the new idea kicks in. In Ford’s new EV+ vehicles the onboard systems have another calculation they make. That calculation is to figure out how far you are from what the car thinks is “home” for you. Why is that calculation important? Because “home” is where you can recharge your vehicle, a unique location (so far at least) that has a different “meaning” to the car’s systems. And if there is enough electric power to get you home without needing to run the gas engine to recharge it, the car can automatically switch over to electric power full time rather than burn more costly (and carbon dioxide emissions-generating) gas in your car.  (We should point out that that the EV+ also can learn other destinations where charging is possible.  “Home” is just one example.)

It does this automatically, without you having to think about it, using the concept of “knowing where you are and quite a bit about where you’re going” (something the “Personal Assistant” software does in smartphones too) to provide you with the most cost-effective use of energy for your vehicle. (The new EV+ does more than this too, of course. You can read about it here.)

And maybe it seems a stretch to think of this as like Mother Nature’s Estuaries, where biological innovation is at its most rapid and unconventional because of the collision of ecosystems. But that’s just the point. It is a collision of seemingly unrelated ecosystems that has resulted in an innovation that probably very soon will just seem so obvious to all of us. Like we should have come up with this on our own long ago.

But we would not have without forcing the disruptive thinking that bringing together seemingly unrelated ideas makes possible.


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