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Don't Mistake the Rise of Invisible Technology for the End of Innovation

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The way we see technology has changed, but there's no cause for pessimism.

Over the past month or so I've read a surprising number of articles wondering if we have seen all there is to see, with regard to the truly great innovative leaps of mankind.

Take modern sanitation for example, as The Economist rightly points out, few inventions, save our mastery of flame or the wheel have done so much to transform the lives of so many.

The pessimists however, look upon our current plumbing systems and ask just how much they've come on, exactly, in the last couple of hundred years? With the answer being - not that much, in the revolutionary sense - a bath is still a bath, just as our ovens are still basically a heated box.

Peter Thiel a founder of PayPal and one of the first investors in Facebook, goes so far as to argue that that innovation in America is "somewhere between dire straits and dead", with similar mutterings from experts in a range of sectors. The view being that the economic impact of modern innovation just doesn't match up to what we've seen in the past.

A recent poll of British scientists event found that, if we go by when precisely our nation came up with its 50 greatest inventions, the 1820's was the most innovative decade of all.

Which goes somewhat against instinct, as the internet, smartphones, tablets and instant messaging have sprung up around us and sped the whole world up in doing so - then again, what's that saying about less haste and more speed?

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Because there's a difference isn't there, between technology and innovation: Innovation is about new inventions, technology is what inventions become when we people eventually learn and understand how to use those inventions productively. There's a time delay between creation and the really beneficial effects.

I'd argue that some of the things we are seeing now will have as transformative and wide ranging consequences, like driverless cars. In a sense, they're already here, some U.S. states have approved them for use, we're just not all using them yet.

As William Gibson said, (he was the science fiction author that first invented the term 'cyberspace') "The future's already here, it's just not evenly distributed"

It shouldn't take much thinking to see how driverless cars, once integrated, will have an enormous impact on society. And what's new about cars? Nothing. What's new about parking sensors - not much. Ok, what about GPS? Seen it before, most people carry it around in their pocket.

But add these things together (appreciate I'm simplifying a little here) and suddenly road crash fatalities are cut in half. People can work three times as far from where they live as there's now no difference between working remotely and travelling to work. What does this mean for healthcare? For car insurance?

The point is whilst it's not a single mammoth invention, when added together, you have a transformative effect. This is a different kind of innovation and one we see in the tech industry all the time.

Dave Brailsford CBE, is a British cycling coach, currently performance director of British Cycling and the general manager of Bradley Wiggins' Team Sky. He talks a lot about "The aggregation of marginal gains" What that means is as a cycling team, or a business, you look for that 1% margin for improvement in everything you do, on the basis that they add up to be more than the sum of their parts.

In addition to, and perhaps because of this more accretive form of innovation, we've seen a change in the way consumers perceive technology. Namely that if you asked the general iPad owner how many megahertz the i6 chip in their iPad runs at, they won't know, and they won't care.

They just expect it to work.

So instead of 'seeing the technology' they see the design, the look and feel - the user experience. Apple's focus on that has been a big part of how they became the biggest brand in technology. They understood that for the modern tech blind consumer, iterative innovations in tech, but a revolution in design can have an unbelievable impact.

Speaking for Sage, we're always searching for the marginal gains everywhere throughout our products, to keep us moving forwards by focusing on how business owners actually use and experience the software - given the environment they're in and the challenges they face.

So when I look ahead, whether it's a giant leap, or a journey of a million precious steps, I am hugely optimistic about the future of technology. Whether it's 3D printing or quantum medicine, the future is bright, and it's closer than you think.