Humanity has been around for at least 100,000 years. For most of that time, all we could do was hunt down some dinner and watch out for enemies. Technology was personal and mainly a matter of craftsmen making tools, one at a time. This was the tribal life of the hunter-gatherer and it lasted for about 90,000 years.
Life was one dimensional – see the target, shoot the arrow. It was also brutish and short.
Revolution and growth
Agriculture was the first great revolution. For the first time in history, people could come together in villages, towns and even great cities because they had mastered the first few principles of mass production. Along with the freedom to form societies came the time and motivation to develop art and architecture, engineering and technology. We explored the earth and started to see ourselves as something bigger than nature.
Life had become two dimensional, with power in the hands of those controlling land and sea.
Industry was the second great revolution. By harnessing scalable energy sources, including rivers, steam and ultimately oil, we learned how to exert massive mechanical power in a small area. This allowed the application of mass production concepts to essentially all things made by humans.
We were suddenly operating in three dimensions, with enough engineering precision to generate huge wealth by not only controlling real estate, but also machinery and equipment to produce dramatically more on the same square mile. Consider the productivity per acre of a semiconductor fab or a Manhattan high rise.
All along the way, however, we worried about whether the world could feed everyone. Population grew rapidly, and many, like the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus, were convinced that the only resolution was a cycle of doom, as the mouths needing to be fed invariably outstrip our production. As recently as 1968, the common belief was that a “population explosion” would mean massive famines all over the planet.
Since 1968, world population has more than doubled, and even though we’ve seen no such Malthusian apocalypse, we still worry about the earth’s natural resources. In today’s context, the question of sustainability touches not only whether there will be enough water, oil, and food for the next 50 years, but whether we’ll somehow ruin the workings of our global climate and ecosystem to the point that it destroys us.
Supply chain saves the world
I’ve been making this same pitch for 20 years now, and the data finally proves it: supply chain, as the discipline of plan-source-make-deliver, spends all its time trying to get more output from less input. Productivity, measured in simplest terms as output per hour of work, has accelerated since 1997, while, at the same time, population growth curves have flattened – the picture emerging is, in fact, the exact opposite of Malthusian doom.
Contrary to what so many had feared, we look, if anything, ready to overshoot our material needs everywhere on earth sometime after the mid of the century. Hard as it may be to believe, there will, in fact, be plenty of food, shelter and medicine to go around.
Winners and losers
I concede that this projection promises no utopia. Productivity gains are steadily eliminating jobs, and transition at the individual or family level is always difficult – sometimes impossible. People hooked into economically unsustainable jobs like longshoremen, fast-food workers or grocery cashiers won’t fare well.
Those who learn to live by their wits, however, will thrive. The third great revolution happening now, with the birth of an information age, is creating millions of jobs and gigantic wealth for those prepared to sell either pure ideas or information-enhanced services. Uber is just a start, as is CloudDDM, which uses 3D printers and fast fulfilment to deliver spare parts that might otherwise have been impossible to find or too expensive to be worth buying.
The amazing thing is that this information age will allow us to conquer the fourth dimension – time. By creating things that people will buy (apps, entertainment, designs) out of either pure information or information-enabled work, business can learn to thrive asynchronously.
The next age is all about creativity. Long live the artists.