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Spread Your Wings

By Vijay Ramachandran on Jan 30, 2012
Vijay Ramachandran About the author

Vijay Ramachandran

Vijay Ramachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of ChannelWorld.

Another fresh new year is here …

Another year to live!

To banish worry, doubt, and fear,

To love and laugh and give!

—William Arthur Ward

New Year, the oldest holiday in the world, dates back almost 4,000 years to the Babylonians. To them it signified regeneration, much like it does to us.  To me, the New Year’s about taking  time off from work and catching up  with family and friends. It’s about spending a bit more time doing things that I enjoy like baking bread.

And, it’s about making determinations and resolutions. In my case, they revolve around fighting the battle of the bulge and knocking some pounds off (for the Babylonians this was a time for more prosaic issues like returning borrowed farm equipment and just having a good time).

There is something about this time of the year that goes well with renewal and change and new directions to take.

Given today’s economic climate, there’s predictably talk of fundamentally shifting our actions to reflect this reality.

Before we get any further let me tell you a tale about innovation, intelligence, foresight, hindsight, success and failure.

September 1833 is an interesting milestone in the annals on human ingenuity. For, it was in that month that a ship, the Tuscany, arrived in Kolkata having sailed from Boston four months before that.

In its holds, the ship carried a commodity so precious, that during the reign of the Great mughals it was the most expensive ingredient in their royal pantries. Simply put, the ship carried a 100 tons of ice carved out of frozen lakes and ponds in the US.

Given the nature of its cargo, it’s little surprise that Kolkata greeted the Tuscany with disbelief and incredulity. That is till the presence of ice was conirmed — it then sold out as fast as it could be unloaded.

Over the next many decades, it was this ice trade that made cold drinks and ice cream possible in Kolkata and Chennai. It also made the Tuscany’s owner, Frederick Tudor, very wealthy (a ton of ice in the US was worth $4; in India it sold for $50). Full credit to the man though, since Tudor came up with the idea all of his own after many years of trying to push the ‘next big thing’.

Ice exports from the US to India continued for close to 50 years, making a whole bunch of ice haulers very rich. The ice haulers didn’t sit content with their wealth. They came up with faster and better ways of extracting ice, and experimented with insulated ships. In short, they innovated further.

Yet, a few decades later, the ice haulers were out of business. The reason: Ice factories using refrigeration units could now make ice anywhere, even in Kolkata. The factories too began to innovate, doing anything to make ice cheaper and in increasing quantity. Homes in the West (and a few in India) began keeping ice-boxes that helped food stay fresh longer.

Advances in technology and the ‘convenience’ factor led to home refrigerator in 1915. The ice factories adapted as best they could. Some switched to address bulk needs for ice—mostly industrial—but most simply perished.

The critical issue is that ice-haulers never thought of establishing ice factories. Neither did the factories come up with the concept of fridges. Each was content to push the envelope within a restricted, narrow zone. No less, I admit; but also no more.

The reason for this recounting of history is the lesson that it holds for us. If we only innovate within the limited framework of today’s needs, we might not survive to benefit from tomorrow’s realities.

It also makes prediction a tough game (I bet we’d have equal success try to divine the future of the technology business by reading tea leaves).

All I can safely say about the future is that it’s going to be different.

It’s futurologist Paul Saffo’s dictum that the true goal of forecasting is not really to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present. I guess that’s what benefiting from technology is all about.

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