CAPE TOWN – Disruption is the buzzword in business these days. According to Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen, it displaces an existing market, industry or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile.

Disruption is not new; economic history tells us it has always been with us. A closer observation of economic history can help to understand how disruption will unfold in the future based on how it impacted on society in the past.

One great example in this regard is the history of refrigeration. Before there was refrigeration, Frederic “Ice King” Tudor figured out how to carve frozen water out of Massachusetts ponds and send it to India.

The ice-cutting industry was one of the major business enterprises in 18th and 19th century Boston. Ice cut in New England was packed onto insulated ships and transported across the globe.

At the centre of this booming industry was the “Ice King”. The Tudor Ice Company owned ice houses in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Galle, Singapore, Jamaica, Havana, New Orleans, and Charleston.

Tudor conquered many challenges in packing, shipping and storing ice in far away lands, not the least of which were weather issues, as excerpted in a biography of Tudor published by the Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport.

The ice-cutting industry was disrupted by the fridge.

In the years after World War I, the natural ice industry collapsed into insignificance. Industry turned entirely to plant ice and mechanical cooling systems and the introduction of cheap electric motors resulted in domestic modern refrigerators becoming common in US homes by the 1930s and more widely across Europe in the 1950s, allowing ice to be made in the home.

The natural ice harvests shrunk and ice warehouses were abandoned or converted for other uses. The use of natural ice on a small scale lingered on in more remote areas for some years and ice continued to be occasionally harvested for carving at artistic competitions and festivals, but by the end of the 20th century there were very few physical reminders of the trade.

Future of the fridge:

Speaking at the first Singularity University Summit in South Africa this month, David Roberts, who is one of the world’s leading experts on disruptive innovation and exponentially advancing technology, illustrated the concept of disruption by talking about the transition from the medieval spice trade – a time when spices were considered to preserve food – to the trade and transport of ice blocks, through to the transport of refrigerated goods and the arrival of personal fridges in the home.

In each case enormous industries and trade patterns were built around the technology and social trends. In each case, all the businesses involved in one version of the trade failed to make the transition to the new model.

But the disruption took place over generations. Individuals had time to adapt.

There is no reason to assume the home fridge is the end point, Roberts indicated.

What will come next? What will disrupt the fridge?

Roberts believes that the rapid delivery of fresh food will change the game.

When you can get a drone to deliver your cold beer almost immediately, why would you waste space and energy in your home by chilling your own?

The story of the ice trade and how it was disrupted by the fridge illustrates what happened in the past. Today some industries are faced with the same predicament, such as the mobile phone and computer screen industry.

Mobile phone:

In the near future, the smartphone will no longer be with us. It will disappear and be replaced by objects around us. Think of the way beepers disappeared.

Gadgets such as the Amazon Echo or Apple’s own AirPods will become more and more important in the world.

As artificial-intelligence systems such a Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Samsung’s Bixby and Microsoft’s Cortana get smarter, there will be a rise not just in talking to computers but in having them talk back. At this stage the Microsoft Hololens is one product that has a greater potential of killing the mobile phone.

Computer screen:

Another object that may just disappear is the computer screen, if an Apple patent is anything to go by.

Imagine a box that’s completely wireless and can project a large image on a wall instead of relying on an external monitor.

This is what Apple’s US patent number 8610726 is all about.

It offers a glimpse at a new face of computing that isn’t shackled by traditional monitors and which could potentially do for in-home projectors what the iPhone did for smartphones.

The patent describes a featureless computer box, dubbed a “desk-free computer”, with a built-in laser projector system that can produce a 40-inch image from 38cm away. It connects to all of its accessories wirelessly and it also supports inductive wireless charging (so you can just place it on a wireless charging surface to receive power).

All this points to the disappearance of the screen on desktops and laptops.

The history of disruption shows us that it will always occur in society.

The question is not whether it will happen or not, but what we will do when it does happen.

Businesses and their leaders therefore need to ask themselves the following questions:

What industry am I in?

What industry will disruption come from?

The Infonomist will work towards answering these questions by highlighting industries that will be impacted by disruption. Such information will be useful to businesses as they plan for the future.

Wesley Diphoko is the head of the Independent Media’s digital lab and founder of the Kaya Labs. Follow him on Twitter: @wesleydiphoko


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