April 4, 2012

Technology Transfer

I’ve written lately about a new fusion reactor and how the scientific process should be applied to test it. Let me take those ideas a step further by saying that innovation is necessary in this complex world, but technology transfer is even more necessary.

Technology transfer is the passing of knowledge from one person or group to another. We can have the most innovative and useful technologies in the shop or the lab, but unless the word is spread about them they remain unknown. We often cannot count on the inventors to tell us about their creations. Their skills like in making the technology or the discovery, not in marketing or publicity. Besides, a publicity effort would take their valuable time away from further development of their ideas.

Economist Paul Zane Pilzer has written about the “technology gap”: a backlog of technologies in various stages of development that have not yet made it into widespread use. The technology gap exists because the public does not know about these inventions or discoveries. Another reason is because the need for them is not pressing enough; the problems they solve are not urgent problems. While many new products are interesting and even pretty cool, unless they meet a genuine need, they are likely to languish in the development stage.

We’ve had alternative fuel vehicles in development for many decades, but with our petroleum fueled vehicles we had no need for electric or solar-powered cars. Now that there are grave concerns about the climate and the use of fossil fuels, the problem of clean energy is much more acute. Solutions are being actively sought. Money is being funnelled into development of alternative power sources at a rapid rate.

Pilzer has also said that the level of our technology use is determined by our ability to process information. What he means is that we have the technologies we know about and can use and understand. Again, these are products and designs that meet our needs in some way, even if only for entertainment. Without any media coverage, we don’t know enough to ask for them, even though they might solve a problem we’ve been struggling with.

For most products, it takes substantial funding to get them through the stages from idea and prototype to product release and distribution. Investors are universally shy about putting their money into something they don’t understand. Once someone makes it clear to them what the technology is and how it can be useful to society, i.e., how many people are likely to buy it, the purse strings open and money becomes available to propel development.

That’s why skilled writers and communicators are important in an increasingly technological world. We need people like technical communicators who can understand the new technologies sufficiently to popularize them in mainstream media. You’ve probably even contributed to technology transfer yourself. Did you ever have a new gadget that you just couldn’t wait to show off? You impressed your friends with it, and pretty soon they were buying one too.

We need that same enthusiasm for technologies in development. We need people with communication skills who are also geeky enough to want to learn all they can about these new technologies, processes, products and discoveries and then talk them up in the media. Fortunately, we have many communication channels that provide for that.

Most of the top blogs are gadget blogs, successfully transferring information and knowledge about new products to people who are looking for the next cool thing, or something to solve a particular problem. We have active people on Twitter like @GuyKawasaki and @Brainpicker who alert us to new products and ideas. Technical marketers tout the benefits of new products but they also give us the technical explanations of how they work and why.

Technology transfer not only gets products out of the lab and into the hands of consumers, it helps raise the technology level of other groups who lag behind the early adopters and even mainstream users. Our technology coverage in North America is so broad we often don’t think of other areas of the world where more recent technologies could really be of use. Again, it often comes down to a money issue and lack of information.

Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat reactor and other products in development need attention from the media so that the right people can scrutinize them, endorse them, fund them, mature them into working products, and get them to market if they deserve it.

Our continued technological progress and the solutions to the world’s problems depend upon it.

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