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Forget about capturing and reverse engineering alien spacecraft to gain a competitive edge in the innovation race. Sorry, but the universe is billions of years old and even if some extra terrestrial civilization millions or billions of years older than our own managed to travel here from halfway across the galaxy and crash, it is very likely that we would be incapable of reverse engineering their technology.
When the United States captures a downed enemy aircraft we can reverse engineer it because at its core it is still an aircraft made of similar materials to those we use and made using similar manufacturing processes. Meaning that we already have the capabilities to build something similar, we just need a physical example or blueprints of the aircraft.
But, when you are talking about something made using technology thousands, millions, or billions of years more advanced than our own, it becomes less likely that we would be able to reverse engineer found technology. This is because there would likely be materials involved that we haven’t discovered yet, either entirely new elements on the periodic table or alloys that we don’t yet know how to make. Imagine what would happen if a slightly damaged Apollo-era Saturn V rocket suddenly appeared circa 50 AD next to the Pantheon in Rome. How long would it be before the Romans would be able to fly to the moon?
If a large, and overdue, solar event were to occur and destroy all of our electricity-based technology, how long would it take for us to be able to achieve spaceflight again?
There is no doubt that human beings developed a different set of technologies prior to the last great apocalypse and most of this knowledge has been lost through time, warfare, and 400 feet of water or 20 feet of earth. Only tall stone constructions away from prehistoric coastlines or items locked away in dry underground vaults survived. History and technology are incredibly perishable.
Twelve thousand years later we have achieved some pretty remarkable achievements and ground penetrating radar is giving us new insight into the scope and scale of pre-apocalypse societies hidden undersea and underground.
But, there are a great many mysteries from the ancient world that we are still struggling to reverse engineer. From the pyramids to Stonehenge, people are hypothesizing a number of ways these monuments may have been built and what their true purpose might have been.
Nine years ago researchers from the University of Amsterdam determined that the blocks on stone moved around on the Giza plateau on sledges would have moved easier if someone went before them wetting the sand.
Eleven years ago, American Wally Wallington of Michigan showed in a YouTube video how he could move stones weighing more than a ton up to 300 feet per hour and then stand them up vertically all by himself.
He didn’t invent some amazing new piece of technology to do this, but instead eschewed modern technology and showed how he can do this using basic principles of physics and gravity. First let’s look at the video and then we’ll talk about what apocalypse innovation exercise is:
The apocalypse innovation exercise is one way of challenging orthodoxies and is quite simple:
Identify a technology or input that is key to your product or service achieving its goal
Concoct a simple reason why this technology no longer functions or this input is no longer available
Have the group begin to ideate alternative inputs that could be used or alternate technologies that could be leveraged or developed to make the product or service achieve its goal again (If you are looking for a new technology, what are the first principles that you could go back to? And what are the other technology paths you could explore instead? – i.e. acoustic levitation instead of electromagnetic levitation)
Pick one from the list of available options
Re-engage the group to backcast what it will take to replace the existing technology or input with this new one (NOTE: backcasting is the practice of working backwards to show how an outcome will be achieved)
Sketch out how the product or service will change as result of using this new technology or input
Brainstorm ways that this change can be positioned as a benefit for customers
Apocalypse innovation can be a valuable innovation exercise for those products or services approaching the upper flattening of the traditional ‘S’ curve that pretty much all innovations go through and represents one way that can lead you to the steeper part of a new ‘S’ curve.
What other exercises do you like to use to help people challenge orthodoxies?
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