It’s Not Just Binary: Integrating Digital Solutions into Physical Problems

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A key adaptive trait of human beings is our ability to share new knowledge with each other. It allows us to cumulatively grow as a society, collectively propelling us forward. In other words: innovation creates progress.

Innovation, by definition, is, “a new method, idea, or product.” We as humans must stop the pervasive association of innovation with digital solutions.  Progress is not as simple as 1’s and 0’s. As our society becomes more digitized, we cannot abandon the needs of our physical world.  The physical world has real problems, and they also require innovative solutions.

The first three Industrial Revolutions provided cascading benefits that we as a society are still reaping today. An article from the World Economic Forum puts it best, “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production.” Now, as we enter the fourth Industrial Revolution, we must learn how to build upon the third and focus on the intersection between the physical and digital spheres.

Technology only continues to improve, and we’ve entered an age of unprecedented technological growth. But to drive real ingenuity we must also prioritize and romanticize the sciences that fall outside the digital realm and fuel true physical innovation.

With the rise of STEM education, coding has become the “skill du jour.” App developers and coders are idolized because of their ability to quickly create for a large pay-off. While it is still important to promote these skills, we can’t neglect the types of talents needed to solve more traditional and industrial problems in the physical space.  We should also encourage today’s youth to learn sciences rooted in the development of physical systems—mechanical engineering, hardware development, additive manufacturing, etc.

Digitalization and technology adds a layer of convenience on top of the world we already live in, rather than directly addressing the fundamental challenges of that world. For instance, Silicon Valley constantly releases products to make life more convenient – these include services like ride sharing, grocery delivery, and product subscription services, but what are we doing to address the physical consequences of things like urban sprawl, climate change, and aging infrastructure? How can we get tomorrow’s minds excited about solving these problems?

Progress through innovation moves us forward, but we must recognize that the next industrial revolution won’t only be about information flow between computers. It will also be about building digital solutions into and not just onto the physical world.