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Think back to the world 10 years ago. Google had just gotten started; Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. There were no smart phones, no one remotely conceived of the possibility of the 100,000 iPhone apps that exist today. The few large impact technologies (versus slightly incremental advances in technologies) that occurred in the past 10 years were black swan technologies. In his book, Nassim Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event of low probability, extreme impact, and with only retrospective predictability. Black swans can be positive or negative in their impact and are found in every sector. Still, the most pressing reason I believe “black swan technology” is a conceptual tool that should be added to everyone’s cognitive toolkit today is simply because the challenges of climate change and energy production we face today are too big to be tackled by known solutions and safe bets.
I recall fifteen years ago when we were starting Juniper networks, there was absolutely no interest in replacing traditional telecommunications infrastructure (ATM was the mantra) with Internet protocols. After all, there were hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the legacy infrastructure, and it looked as immovable as today’s energy infrastructure. Conventional wisdom would say to make incremental improvement to maximize the potential of the existing infrastructure. The fundamental flaw in the conventional wisdom is the failure to acknowledge the possibility of a black swan. Improbable is not unimportant. I believe the likely future is not a traditional econometric forecast but rather one of today’s improbable becoming tomorrow’s conventional wisdom! Who would be crazy enough to forecast in 2000 that by 2010 almost twice as many people in India would have access to cell phones than latrines? Wireless phones were once only for the very rich. With a black swan technology shot you need not be constrained with the limits of the current infrastructure, projections or market. You simply change the assumptions.
Many argue that since we already have some alternative energy technology today, we should quickly deploy it. They fail to see the potential of the Black Swan technology possibilities; they discount them because they mistake improbable for unimportant and cannot imagine the art of the possible which technology enables. I believe doing this alone runs the risk of spending vast amounts of money on outdated conventional wisdom. Even more importantly, it won’t solve the problems we face. Any time focused on short-term, incremental solutions will only distract from working on the homeruns that could change the assumptions around energy and society’s resources. While there is no shortage of existing technology providing incremental improvements today — whether todays thin film solar cells, wind turbines, or lithium ion batteries — even summed, they are simply irrelevant to the scale of our problems. They may even make interesting and sometimes large businesses, but will not impact the prevailing energy and resource issues at scale. For that we must look for and invest in quantum jumps in technology with low probability of success; we must create in Black Swan technologies. We must enable the multiplication of resources that only technology can do.
So what are these next generation technologies, these black swan technologies of energy? These are risky investments that stand a high chance of failure, but enable larger technological leaps that promise earth-shaking impact if successful: making solar power cheaper than coal or viable without subsidies, economically making lighting and air conditioning 80 percent more efficient. Consider 100 percent more efficient vehicle engines, ultra-cheap energy storage, and countless other technological leaps that we can’t yet imagine. It’s unlikely that any single shot works, of course. But even 10 Google-like disruptions out of 10,000 shots will completely upend conventional wisdom, econometric forecasts, and, most importantly, our energy future.
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