IF WE ACCEPT the premise that the latest advances in technology matter the most, looking at comparative international positioning in information technology (IT), biotechnology, nanotechnology, and quantum computing, then we would logically ask: Can the United States keep its lead over other nations in these fields? No doubt developments in these advanced fields are important. Molecular engineering will make materials stronger, allowing faster airplanes and taller buildings. Moore's Law--that because of technological developments in the semiconductor industry, the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every 18 months--will drive faster and ubiquitous computing. (1) But a focus on advanced technologies is misplaced when considering national security and global power questions. Such a focus leaves out a great deal.
Innovation is not restricted to advanced technologies. A focus on biotechnology, nanotechnology, and so on distracts attention from older, mature technologies, which also produce many innovations that forums dealing with the future of technology do not consider. Technologies advance vertically to higher levels of performance and complexity, but they also advance horizontally or sidewise into new markets and applications. This kind of innovation is centered on the application of technology, not on improvements in narrow performance measures like computing speed or microscopic size.
When Toyota and Nissan challenged Ford and General Motors for market supremacy in the 1970s they did not do so with technologically advanced robots. By the 1970s, the automobile industry was a mature industry and every big player had essentially the same technology. What Toyota and Nissan did was to import Detroit's discarded 1960s technology and apply it to inventory, work teams, and quality control. The result was a strategic surprise to Detroit. A similar story could be told about steel and consumer electronics in the 1970s. Americans tend to focus on only one model of technology at a time. Disruptive (revolutionary) technologies are the fashion, but as important as they are, they are not universal models of change. There are many models of technology development.
Sidewise technologies are mature technologies applied to new problem areas. For "mature," think of dull, old-fashioned technologies that were innovative two generations ago. Such technologies attract little notice from first-rate scientists and engineers and get little or no government support.
The concept of sidewise technologies arose during the 1960s. In a project on South American economic development, Robert Panero, an engineer at the Hudson Institute, noticed that American engineers believed that all of the good South American sites for hydroelectricity had been taken. As a result, the potential for new hydroelectricity was low. (2) But Panero thought about low earth dams as an alternative. A low earth dam, a 10- to 30-foot-high structure of earth and concrete used to hold back a small river, could run a few small generators. American civil engineers dismissed such dams as not worthy of consideration. Low earth dams did not employ the giant concrete intake towers of the high dam; their electrical generating capacity was small; they did not require the design talents of high-tech engineers; and they were not considered safe because most had been designed without elaborate computer calculations of strains and pressure.
What the engineers failed to see was that, given the geography of South America, much more electricity could be generated from such low dams than from a few high dams. South America's major rivers have thousands of tributaries that extend over enormous flat plains. Low dams are easy to construct and can be made quite safe by overengineering them with more earth and concrete. South America had great hydroelectric potential, but when looked at from the conventional advanced-technology perspective, it did not. …