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Garbage In, Innovation Out

From coal mining to computer networks, sometimes the bathwater is worth more than the baby.

History proclaims that James Watt’s reinvention of the (Thomas) Newcomen steam engine with Matthew Boulton launched the Industrial Revolution and transformed the world. But history politely downplays the key business reason why people actually bought those early Boulton and Watt betas.

The answer isn’t pretty; in fact, it’s dank, it’s wet, and it stinks. Britain’s coal mine operators bought these newfangled and much improved steam engines for the same reason they had purchased the original Newcomen engines-to pump out filthy water that seeped into their mine shafts and interfered with operations. More powerful pumps meant deeper, drier and thus more profitable mines. For all intents and purposes, the Boulton and Watt steam engine initially made its money as a waste disposal unit. Going down the waste pumping learning curve generated the innovations that turned steam engines into the world’s most pervasive and profitable source of industrial power.

There’s a deeper lesson here. In practical terms, “waste management” and “innovation management” still have more in common than not. Failing to appreciate the economics of waste is a waste of economics. Waste-in all its myriad forms-is a resource that constantly redefines innovation opportunities.

Let’s go back to the coal mines. Just as wastewater created the market in steam engine innovation, the waste product of coal mining and refining-coal tar-enabled a revolution in chemistry. The growing abundance of coal tar led directly to the rise of the synthetic-dye, photographic-film and pharmaceutical industries. Aniline, film and aspirin were all lucrative (by-)products of coal tar. Waste provided an embarrassment of riches. Indeed, within a generation, these “waste” products became more valuable businesses than mere coal.

Opportunistic waste management is a transcendental theme in industrial innovation. As economies-of-scale-driven assembly lines came to dominate the industrial landscape, notions of waste became better defined and refined. Meatpackers, for example, soon made lots of money from the oleomargarine, glue and knife handles-made out of shinbones-that had previously been treated as organic scrap. In Cincinnati-a.k.a. Porkopolis-Gustavus Swift bragged that his slaughterhouses had become so sophisticated that they used “everything but the squeal.” The relentless pursuit of process efficiencies yielded serendipitous product innovations.

Henry Ford’s innovation in treating “time” as a form of waste extended well beyond the production of automobiles. By experimenting with speedups and production techniques explicitly designed to slash manufacturing times, Ford radically altered the relationship between invention and innovation. You’ve probably heard the Ford adage that a customer could have any color Model T he wanted so long as it was black. But have you ever wondered why the only choice was black? Because black was the fastest-drying paint. Accelerating the pace of drying paint therefore became an essential part of mass automobile production.

So a twist on Ford’s famous epigram “If it doesn’t add value, it’s waste” seems equally valid: “If it’s waste, it can add value.” The trick is to figure out a context where waste becomes an exploitable asset.

This sensibility is as important for postindustrial digital innovation as it is for material innovation. Where’s the “waste” in the Internet? One obvious answer is processing power. Literally millions of microprocessors are underutilized relative to their capacity. There are gigaflops, teraflops and petaflops of processing power just begging to be exploited.

In fact, a few parallel-processing pioneers have begun to take advantage of this opportunity by turning the Internet into a giant global supercomputer. The SETI@home initiative, for example, invites people interested in the search for life on other worlds to “lend” their networked computers to the processing of cosmic radio signals during their idle times. Almost four million users worldwide have signed on.

Over the past year, molecular biologists at Oxford University’s Centre for Computational Drug Discovery have created a comparable “screen-saver-driven” parallel-processing effort to turn idle processors into drug designers. The goal is to test disease-causing proteins against a library of small molecules-potential drugs-to see if they might bind. (Binding is a prerequisite for a molecule to act as a drug.) Each user receives roughly 100 virtual molecules along with one target protein. The “hits” are transmitted back to Oxford for further analysis.

This is just the first wave of “waste-based” innovation in the Internet infrastructure. The next wave will spring from the answers to questions such as, How might processors and servers be used for self-diagnostics and repair? How might organizations create intranet-based supercomputers to better manage their information and themselves?

As for the future of postindustrial “waste management��: as surely as the chemical and pharmaceutical industries rose from the detritus of coal mining, history suggests that new industries will arise from the digital detritus of semiconductors, software and switching.

Anticipating the next generation of waste-driven innovation may be difficult, but it surely won’t be a waste of time.

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