Ridding the world of technology deserts

Sean Newman MaroniMission

Here are three arbitrary assumptions:

  1. You have an internet connection.
  2. You have interest in new technologies.
  3. Since you’re interested in tech, you’ve heard of 3D printing, drones, virtual reality, and self-driving cars.

Perhaps you’ve experienced some of those innovations first hand. Maybe you’re even at the point where each new headline regarding these topics simply annoys you. If that sentiment captures your experience there is something I’d like to remind you of:

95% of the global population has never experienced these things.

Though it sometimes appears new tech is effortlessly invented and distributed through society, this is not the reality. Breakthroughs don’t simply emerge out of thin air. They happen through effective collaborations of engineers and creators over extended periods of time. This is somewhat intuitive for those who are involved in tech. But what’s less appreciated is the subsequent diffusion of new inventions is much slower than we imagine.

Technology proliferation obeys the Diffusion of Innovation law.

This curve usually lasts between 5 and 20 years (you still know someone without a smartphone, after all).

Self-driving cars are dominating headlines, and offer an illustrative example of this law. It certainly seems like this technology has snuck up on us overnight. But Google and others have been toiling away on it for 15 years. It will take another 2–3 years to achieve full autonomy, then another 1–3 years for regulators to approve the technology. Yet after all of that it will still take another 15+ years for all non-self driving cars to cycle out of the global fleet. That is a long time, and reinforces the fact that:

‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’— William Gibson.

The tools we use to invent also obey this law

There exists a subset of new tech I’d like to call creative tech for which this law is especially important. Creative technologies are the tools we use to design, engineer, and innovate the future.

  • For cavemen, creative tech meant flint rocks, stone hammers, and fur scraper shells.
  • For colonists it was anvils, axes, and hammers.
  • For our industrialists it was steam shovels, hydraulic presses, and sewing machines.
  • For creators today it’s 3D printers, laser cutters, VR, hardware, and code.

Accelerating the diffusion of creative tech is the reason Betabox exists. We do it by designing and operating modular tech labs that make tools like 3D printers available to anyone anywhere.

The rate of diffusion of creative technologies dramatically affects our society. After two years of building this business we’ve identified five patterns that suppress creative technology diffusion.

  1. Institutional siloing — Sitting in the catacombs of prestigious universities and the basements of monolithic corporations sit the tools from which the next wave of invention will spawn. Yet even within those institutions, technologies tend not to be accessible to those who could really use them.
  2. High capex — When it’s too expensive upfront to buy all this tech, it’s less likely the tools will survive the budgeting process.
  3. ROI skepticism — It is hard for evangelists to persuade funders due to lack of prior art, low utilization projections, and lack of effective goal alignment.
  4. Lack of implementation knowledge — While it’s true thousands of 3D printers have found themselves in classrooms, I can tell you from experience that many are sitting on shelves ensconced in blankets of dust. Students never learned to use them, and the tools are poorly maintained.
  5. Unsustainable business models — Community makerspaces often sputter because they can’t generate enough revenue. Independent operations can’t take advantage of economies of scale. TechShop only works in large markets. Many existing solutions are subsidized with grants or sponsors. In short — the solutions we have are not economically resilient.

As a result of these forces organizations and communities can’t make the latest tools available to their employees, children, and students. I call these places technology deserts, and they’re holding humanity back.

Technology deserts drive systemic inequality.

Steve Jobs (who died 5 years ago this week) said it best:

‘Computers are bicycles for the mind.’

The implication here is computers and all creative technologies give the gift of leverage. They allow creators to do more with less, more and more economic output in less and less time.

But the five forces that stagnate creative technology diffusion ensure that new technologies find themselves in wealthier places first. So creators living in technology deserts tend to not have a level playing field to compete with incumbents. By the time a tool is finally purchased by lower income communities, it’s already obsolete.

This is how inescapable cycles of economic disenfranchisement occur. It’s not a motivation problem, an intelligence problem, or a work ethic problem. It’s a leverage problem. Perhaps a skilled caveman could have done more with a single stone than a colonist with a hammer. But in this world of exponential growth, the modern technology gap is insurmountable. A hammer and a stone both can push nails into boards. An Asus laptop from 2006 simply can’t sequence the human genome.

Put another way, bringing yesterday’s creative technologies to today’s problems is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Creative technology diffusion must be accelerated.

We lack effective and self-perpetuating systems to promote equitable diffusion of creative tech. If such a mechanism existed disruptive innovation and economic empowerment could skyrocket. Currently, I don’t see enough people working on fixing this in a scalable way. So, we are molding Betabox into such a mechanism.

Our Design Brief: How can we create a financially stable and operationally scalable system designed to accelerate the rate at which any new creative technology can diffuse equitably across all of society?

In my weaker moments I confess I’ve tried to run away from solving this problem. Because it is super duper hard, and potentially not actually possible to solve on manageable time scale. It seems to be at least a ten year commitment.

I’ve asked myself in nauseating volumes how I can be as useful as possible to the world. I’ve launched a co-working space, designed carbon-neutral rockets, organized hackathons, developed recyclable 3D printing filament, and worked on VR at NASA. I’ve done many crazy things in a quest to be maximally useful in my career. But my gut always slams me right back to this problem.

It is clear to me now it would be irresponsible to not dedicate my efforts towards accelerating the rate at which new creative technologies find themselves in the hands of makers and doers from all backgrounds and geographies.

1 Million Betabox Experiences by 2020

The goal at Betabox is to enable 1 million people to use creative tech in our labs over the next 50 months. Here is how we’re doing so far…

10,000 out of 1,000,000, a good start but miles to go. We picked 1 million because after that milestone we’ll be so deeply embedded in the institutions we partner with that we’ll be pretty hard to ignore or destroy. It is also likely other founders and enterprises will be inspired enough to also address this challenge.

To achieve 1 million by 2020, we have to more than double our fleet of labs every year. That’s going to take a lot of capital, strategy, luck, and sweat. But we’ve laid a solid foundation upon which to scale:

  • We have built the most advanced mobile rapid prototyping lab design in the world.
  • We’ve received great press and high praise from our customers.
  • We’ve partnered with hundreds of companies, schools, non-profits, and Betabox Experts to impact 10,000 people throughout the US. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.
  • We’ve got a repeatable business model that is being scaled mostly on internal profits (though we have taken some external capital). We aim to be in ten cities in 2017, then international the year after.

We think we’ll be able to pump tremendous potential energy into the economy through our efforts. While the credit for actually producing economic impact will always belong to the creators themselves, Betabox Experiences ignite their curiosity and Betabox Locations are giving them a safe place to create.

In a Betabox future, an 8 year old kid in rural North Carolina can wield the same tools of the future as a self-driving car engineer at Google. This is a future filled with equality, self-efficacy, creativity, and infinite inspiration. That’s the pale blue dot I want to live on.

Everyone wants to halt climate change, explore other planets, and order pizza delivered by drones. But to achieve those things we must ensure everyone, especially underdogs, are able to throw their hat in the ring and create something great.

— Sean Newman Maroni, Founder + CEO of Betabox. October, 2016.