You probably heard of the new initiative of Elon Musk, “The Boring Company” (https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/27/take-a-look-at-the-first-boring-machine-for-elon-musks-boring-company/).
Yes, yet another example of something similar to what was in a 1930s sci-fi movie, “Transatlantic Tunnel” (1935 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027131/)
The catchy name and the catchy idea? Why should you get stuck in traffic, when it is now technically possible to build yet another kind of “hyperloop”.
This time, akin to a fast-moving shuttle system, where you can just set the car within a box, and have it safely and fast move from point A to point B?
No accidents, no driving, probably saving plenty of time, money, resources- from gasoline to spare parts, to insurance.
Well, despite the catchy name, probably it is the initiative that could, if successful, generate more ripple-effects.
As traditional in most of my posts since 2007, this is of course just a bit of what will appear in a future book, so I will try to keep short and meaningful in less than 1,000 words what would probably become ten times as long within a book.
So, it is better to start it with a narrative- let’s see a typical travel from Turin to Milan, across time, and what would happen if “The Boring Company” were to build a tunnel between Turin, Milan, and Venice.
10 YEARS AGO
Just 120km between Turin and Milan, so a plane wasn’t an option, albeit it might be an option between Turin and Venice (400km).
Anyway, at less than 4 hours (OK, at the typical Italian highway unofficial speed back then, let’s say three hours or less), probably even Turin-Venice would be competitive, vs. planes (few flights between Turin and Venice, if at all), and more so vs. trains (around 4 hours).
A typical travel by car would involve getting on the highway, making few stops on highway cafés (the “Autogrill” chain, usually), and maybe a stop at a gas station and, why not, some unnecessary shopping in shops that usually were along with cafés and gas stations on the Italian highways.
Well, Turin-Milan by car makes sense only for those obsessed with driving or those who need extra flexibility on their timetable- as nowadays high-speed trains imply less than one hour by train.
But Turin-Venice still makes sense, and involves the same stops etc.
Now, let’s imagine that the tunnel has been inaugurated.
You enter the terminal in Turin, put your car into one of the boxes, and the box whizzes through at 200km, with no need for you to drive- just relax, do something else, and let the car go at your destination, after punching in on your smartphone and app the destination (exit terminal).
No intermediate stops. No need for gas. No wear and tear to either you or the car. No lines to enter or exit the highway. And… no cafés.
THE RIPPLE-EFFECTS OF INNOVATION
On the upside, think about how much land would become now available after removing highways.
But on the downside, you just need to start counting the other side-effects.
And as with any innovation, the easiest way is to consider by degrees of separation.
Start with what is directly affected (the tear and wear on yourself and your car), move further away by looking at “consumables” (from gasoline to spare parts, to the humble coffee that you are not going to drink anymore, etc.).
And then move further, further away: you move from what affects those directly involved, to those providing services to support what you do, to the companies (and people) involved into creating and maintaining the infrastructure, to long-term public investment choices to create the conditions to make all that work.
Of course, it might well be that companies producing the shuttle boxes cars will set in will create a new market- but, anyway, you will need less cars, less fuel stations, less cafés, less people to create and maintain infrastructure, e.g. you would not need to constantly (re)pave roads.
Read again about the concept of “moving further away”: the closer you get to the product side, the more focused you are probably on the details- your product, your market, etc.
The farther away, the more you are inclined to look at the bigger picture- caring more about what is described in the title of the previous section as “the ripple effects of innovation”.
“Thinking ahead” is not neutral- the narrowness of your focus defines what you will think ahead about.
The interesting case of “The Boring Company” is that it could actually… affect itself, as a self-cannibalizing business that delivers a new product that makes obsolete or reduces the market of its own existing, more expensive products.
Sometimes you have to cannibalize your own products and market, in order to create space for new products and new markets where you hopefully think that you could get a larger share of the pie.
And it would be utter nonsense to demand that, if you are focused on a specific level, or “plane of reality”, you instead consider in your decision processes what belongs to another level.
Each level implies assuming a different level of uncertainty- just need to know which one suits you and your purposes, and consider that, at different times, you have to switch level.