Tech Track: Technology needs translation
By Dr Kelvin Kemm
The term 'technology' is used a great deal, but to my mind it is too frequently used incorrectly.
Technology is not just mechanics or some electronics. It is the application of science which makes money within the bounds of the rules. The rules include the law, but also a number of other protocols which come into play.
I often see reference to some advanced technology which some company or country supposedly possesses; because they can make some scientific thing happen. That is not technology. That is advanced science. Building a robot which can say good morning and bring you a cup of coffee is not a technology system. That is some fun science and engineering, until a financially productive use is found for it. Only then can you sell a technology system.
What is really important is to bring the three vertices of the triangle together; the science; the economics; and the legal framework. One significant problem is that these three types of people essentially speak different languages. Getting lawyers and accountants to understand the potential of some scientific development is very difficult. But it is equally difficult to get the scientists to take into account legislation which may seem silly when you are in a laboratory, but which can become very important in a factory setting.
South Africans have a reputation for being very inventive. But we need to turn as many inventive ideas as possible into a financial income stream which is profitable not only for the inventors, but also for society as a whole.
There are various government assistance funds which are involved in doing just this. But it is a difficult task. I have been involved with a number of these funds over many years, both as a consultant for the fund, but also in assessing and assisting applicants. So I have experienced both sides. There are inventors and developers who come along with a good idea but have no idea of the health and safety legislation, or of aspects like quality assurance which is a whole technology in itself. It is difficult to explain to such people that their R1 million investment idea is more like a R10m to R20m exercise.
Of course, in contrast, there are many examples in history of really harebrained ideas which looked crazy but turned out to be correct. An extreme example is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in which time slows down the faster you travel. Early on, most people thought that this was just too weird to be of any practical value. But today the GPS navigation system uses Einstein’s maths to direct your car to the destination. The high speed of the satellites means that they exist in a different time frame to you.
What is really important is for the finance and legal people to be able to somehow appreciate that the technology developer may just be standing there with a real gem in his hand. But all too often the finance fellow is far too busy making money to ‘waste his time’ talking to some science guy.
Earlier on the day of writing, Elon Musk launched his 10th experimental Starship. It is the rocket designed to land on Mars. It can carry up to 100 people. It launched successfully and went up 10km as intended, and then reversed back and landed successfully, but a couple of minutes later it blew up. Overall it was a good launch and they learned a lot but the media pictures were of the impressive explosion, not the successful landing. But Starship model number 11 is near completion and will launch soon. They will get it right. Early on nobody wanted to fund his crazy ideas. But he was right and he was determined. That is a powerful combination.
Modern technology systems are more advanced and more complex over a wider front than ever before. That means that the totality of the whole is much more difficult to comprehend than was the building of an ox wagon. It needs courage to approach complexity. But the pay-off can be huge.
The South Africans with the financial control need to be able to develop faith in the scientific people who know how to make things. Certainly for that interaction skilled 'translators' are needed. These are people who can 'translate' science, financial and legal ideas to each of the players. This is not easy. But it is essential.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. He carries out business strategy development and project planning in a variety of fields. [email protected]
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