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Enemies of Progress Part 3: The View from Above

From my living room, I can look out over Germany's second-largest city. When I look out over Hamburg in the evening like this, I sometimes wonder what someone saw 40 years ago, looking down from exactly the same apartment in the evening. At that time, the high-rise in which I live had only been standing for a few years. The answer is both reassuring and sobering: pretty much the same.

On the one hand, the world in 2021 is a completely different place than it was in 1981, and progress has greatly changed our everyday lives. On the other hand, what do you see of it when you look out over a large German city in the evening? Some buildings have been added, others are no longer standing or look different. Hardly recognizable in the dark. The lights of the cars are brighter and the display of the gas station is now digital. You have to pay close attention and as a time traveler you would probably hardly notice the differences between then and now.

The smartphones we look at for hours every day, the powerful computers, the new digital platforms and social networks - none of this can be seen from above. I still remember an illustration from a schoolbook of my childhood: the year 2000 was depicted with new types of transportation of all kinds, transporting people and goods through the air. None of that exists in our cities today, not even 21 years after the millennium.

What can be deduced from this? Innovation takes place primarily in the area of software and 'definable hardware'

Advances and technical achievements are particularly great when it comes to software or devices that a company can develop from A to Z. So a cell phone or a car. As soon as things become more complex (e.g., entire buildings), progress quickly comes to an end. Then it becomes too complicated or too expensive or both. In any case, smart home applications in this country are mostly limited to individual devices or applications: A smart thermostat here, a controllable light switch there. But a really modern building, completely networked, automatic doors, a central extraction system for dust and waste, where can you find anything like that? I don't know of any buildings like that. In our building, there is actually a trash chute through which you can throw your trash down from a height of up to 100 meters. Today, that would no longer be allowed for fire safety reasons, and there is no modern version of such a system anywhere. So we carry our garbage to the cellar and to the street like 150 years ago.

When you ask yourself which business models are likely to be successful and scalable worldwide, it is therefore not surprising that everyone is focusing on software and 'definable hardware'. As soon as more complex things or even infrastructure is involved, I don't believe in rapid change. As great as the achievements of Tesla and SpaceX are, I fear that Elon Musk's "Boring Company" will have a harder time with disruption when it comes to tunneling. I very much wish I were wrong here, by the way.

Everyone sees the level of change he or she wants to see

Sometimes I wonder why some people are fascinated by progress and believe in rapid change in the world to come, but others tend to assume that everything will essentially stay the same. After all, we all live in the same world, so how can our views be so different? The answer is simple: depending on what I am looking at: If I choose the view from above and look at the large infrastructure, virtually nothing has changed; if I briefly use my cell phone to book an e-scooter that doesn't belong to me and then let the navigation system guide me through the city, everything is different than it used to be.

The Western world is moving more slowly

My 'look-out-the-window' example works in Hamburg and in Paris. In Dubai or any Chinese city with millions of inhabitants, the result would be exactly the opposite: A time traveler from 1981 would not even recognize that he is in the same city. I am not one of those who pessimistically complain that 'the old world' is increasingly being left behind by Asia. At the same time, I already fear that the mind is altogether less agile and willing to change in a static environment of a European city.

I will continue to look out of the window in the evenings and am curious to see when the first drones will deliver pizza and air cabs will take people to celebrate in St. Pauli and then back to the Elbe suburbs. Maybe I'll live to see the world become like the one in my childhood textbook.

About the author

Dr. Sebastian Tschentscher finds the best digital minds for your company with his executive search boutique "Digital Minds".

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