There are some innovations I’ve started calling ‘dangerously good’. They’re so full of potential that they threaten some aspect of the status quo. In the entrepreneurship community this type of disruption conjures the image of a corporate goliath slamming into the ground, having been righteously slain by an insurgent David. So naturally we have a bias in favour of disruptors, whom we imagine as scrappy startups fueled by passion and Red Bull to overturn some unjust or crappy reality in the market.
But what about when an innovation makes you feel both awed by its genius, and frightful of the unintended consequences of its well-intentioned success?
This is what came to mind as I watched a mind-blowing talk about newly possible 3D printing of houses. Yes, houses; stronger and vastly quicker than before. Check it out for yourself:
TEDxOjai – 3D Printing a House (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=JdbJP8Gxqog&feature=player_embedded)
What I found interesting was that the presenter opened his talk by making mention of the injuries and accidental deaths that plague the construction industry, especially in developing countries with shoddy standards. Naturally, his solution was this new toy – a brilliant system for rapid house construction.
Yet he failed to mention that while construction is replete with safety problems, it is also the main source of employment for huge swaths of (mostly) young men in the developing world. Wherever you travel, you are likely to encounter the common scene of structures wrapped in scaffolding, with workers climbing through and around them like a colony of ants. In China, the government has propped up the economy and labour by investing in the development of entire cities that sit unpopulated.
It’s a good bet to assume those workers wish for a safer working environment, but I’d bet against them wishing to be replaced by automated building systems. This is merely the latest in a string of industries in which automation looms as a replacement for mass employment. Surely, the long-term hope is that new pools of employment will open up in new industries, and that technology will simply have taken the danger, inconsistency and hard work out of existing ones. But for the meantime, for populations of labourers whose next meal depends on their next shift, this looks more like a threat than a visionary innovation.
What will a study of social impact tell us? More than anything, this case highlights the subjectivism of positive development. If you value immediate employment most, then you might conclude that the more valuable intervention would be in worker safety, as opposed to automation. However, if you value the possibility to build quicker, cheaper, safer most, then you might conclude that replacing workers is the collateral cost of moving our common lot forward.
So, in which direction is progress?