Deeptech/Opinion/

European founders, welcome to the Exponential Age

European founders need to be ready for the Exponential Age, a pivotal turning point for society.

Azeem Azhar

By Azeem Azhar

My home in north London sits in an ordinary suburban street. Yet only 125 years ago, where it stands was farmland. 220m to the west lay a blacksmith. Just three decades later, what would become my home had been built, largely the same brick construction it has today, on a road layout that still exists, with electricity, telephone and water services enabling a modern, domestic life. 

In those 30 years around the turn of and at the beginning of the 20th century, the patterns of society changed as well: women received the right to vote, more workers were employed in factories of modern mass production and a welfare system, still recognisable today, started to take shape. 

What catalysed that change were three general-purpose technologies: the phone, the car and electricity. These were, in the phrasing of historian Vaclav Smil, the technologies that made the modern world. Not simply the gadgets and infrastructure, but the way we lived our lives. 

Take one founder of the day, Henry Ford. Not only did he vastly expand the car market, but he also changed the nature of work by providing economic security and decent pay in return for subordination on a factory line. This model would emerge and become commonplace across the globe.

Today, we are at a similar turning point. Four broad families of technologies — computing, biology, new energy technologies and novel manufacturing techniques — are rapidly improving at exponential rates. These technologies will transform sectors of our economy.

Four broad families of technologies — computing, biology, new energy technologies and novel manufacturing techniques — are rapidly improving at exponential rates. These technologies will transform sectors of our economy.

The intersection of biology and computing will allow us to harness the power of nature to produce new materials and better therapeutics while doing so sustainability. McKinsey & Company reckons the new bioeconomy may be worth $4tn in the next 10 to 20 years. 

In the field of energy, the carbon transition will require a wholesale shift to renewables generation and storage. Already, battery startups like QuantumScape, Form Energy and Northvolt have raised over $6bn for novel storage technologies. And 3D printing promises to reinvent manufacturing, with greater precision, proximity and sustainability. 

But like Henry Ford, the entrepreneurs building on these platforms will not simply create technologies. They will, intentionally or not, redesign how we live our lives. Gig platforms change the worker contract, swapping employment contracts with piece work. 

Founders building high-intensity vertical farms, like Mike Zelkind at 80Acres, or those creating virtual powerplants from electric vehicles, like Simon Daniel at Moixa, will redefine what cities can and do produce. For the first time ever, cities may have a path to energy and food security. 

These innovations, in other words, spill out into the real world, just as they did a century before and the centuries before that. The question is: how should the founders building them think out those important consequences of their work?

Bigger than you 

This transition to the Exponential Age, where technologies accelerate and force societies to change, will be a messy one. 

There is a dichotomy. On the one hand, the promise of the technologies and the few who understand that. On the other, the slower moving institutions of daily life, habits, laws, regulation and the people who steward them. I call this the exponential gap. If unchecked, it will be a source of untold friction and rupture that may result in political instability — or worse. 

The issues are complex. Policymakers may struggle to understand them and so intervene in haphazard and unhelpful ways. Technologists might have the skills to explain the technical side of issues as well as the pace of chance, throwing much-needed insight into the debate. 

By being aware of the wider consequences of their efforts, startup founders can work to bridge the exponential gap. Like Henry Ford a hundred years ago, like it or not, you are reinventing systems of work, communication, security and welfare.

As for the building that housed the blacksmith near my home a century ago, today it is my local convenience store, supplying me with last-minute provisions for weekend breakfasts.

Azeem Azhar is the author of Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It (RandomHouse Business) and an active startup investor. You can follow him on @azeem.

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