Greg Kahn is an expert on the intersection of technology, media and advertising. He is the CEO of GK Digital Ventures and Emerging Tech Exchange.
The disastrous holiday travel experience illustrates how immature I believe emerging technology is in the US
Over Christmas, all airlines faced numerous cancellations due to harsh weather conditions. But for Southwest, which canceled tens of thousands of flights, the debacle was “exacerbated by staff shortages and the company’s outdated scheduling software,” according to businessroundups.org. The airline’s scheduling system was overwhelmed by attempts to match flights with pilots and flight attendants, and eventually all scheduling had to be done manually, the Wall Street Journal reported.
I expect Southwest to rush to update its technology. That’s the textbook response to a challenge like this.
Yet this is not just the story of one airline or even one industry. As an investor and strategic advisor to tech companies, I’ve identified a bigger problem: a general lack of breakthrough digital transformation over the past three years. From my perspective, the pace is slow in areas like transportation, the connected home, cities, and workplaces. There is a causal relationship here.
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A bullet that moves like a snail
The bottlenecks in the supply chain that partly led to rising inflation in 2022 were not just due to the global shocks following the depths of the pandemic. I would say technology, or the lack of it, also played a key role. Systems that manage the movement of goods through the supply chain often are deprecated.
And it’s not just freight traffic that faces roadblocks. Californians, for example, have waited nearly 15 years for the nation’s first “bullet train.” When the Golden State’s project to connect the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco was first approved by voters in 2008, completion was promised in 2020. Work finally began in 2022 on a 171-mile starting line. Even with that lowered expectation, the aim is now to complete the job in 2030.
These anecdotes are not only emblematic of the US approach to emerging technology. I believe the difficulties posed by these situations are symptomatic of the problem that stifles the greater realization of a range of technologies. What is wrong? From my perspective, there is a lack of a coordinated approach between science, the public sector and industry.
The current administration seems to be doing that trying to address this with both the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the CHIPS bill of $50 billion, which aims to strengthen the production, design and research of domestic semiconductors. Yet any misstep in either endeavor could delay the progress we need.
Accelerating the new Silicon Valleys
Most Silicon Valley myths begin with stories of technological wizards tinkering with homemade computers in a garage. It’s not far from reality. But part of what helped Silicon Valley become the birthplace of the modern technology it is today is it proximity to universities such as Stanford. As businesses were built, a community dedicated to driving technological advancement emerged. This public and private marriage of research and development created the magic we recognize and celebrate today.
At this point, I believe government support for infrastructure reform and expanding domestic semiconductor production has led to the Southeast developing into an electric vehicle manufacturing hub. Arun Kumar, General Manager at AlixPartners, told ABC News that “46% of U.S. vehicle production is currently in the South.”
I predict that the expansion of EV production in the South will change the image of these cars. The stereotype of electric car owners as “elites on the coast” will give way to a more mainstream profile. The growth of those facilities that now produce EVs could attract other technology companies. It’s not hard to imagine new “Silicon Valleys” spreading across the South.
Time for a bowel check
I notice that many VCs are looking in new directions for investments these days. Generative AI, for example, has become the “shiny new object.” The appeal of supporting companies that promote advancements in learning the natural features of a data set is obvious. But it’s also time for a real gut check.
The investment community should focus not only on moonshots, but also on solving real-world problems in the short term. It seems to me that many have lost sight of the range of good technology that can show us. For example, imagine someone with a hearing impairment being able to access information in visual formats that open up new areas of work and play. Focused from my perspective on little questions like, “What’s the right ad load for a streaming series?” can detract from the bigger dreams needed to nurture ventures that lead to breakthroughs.
The investment community can encourage all parties – from hardware and software makers to media and communications platforms – to embrace a new era of collaboration. Interoperability is key. I believe walled gardens have prevented consumer devices from providing more immersive environments. As a result, consumer technology’s ability to bring real, practical improvements to people’s lives remains limited.
It’s not an insurmountable problem. It requires the collective will of the entire technology and media ecosystem, starting with the venture capital community. Perhaps VCs can play a bigger role in industry consortia developing standards and new business models. I also think VCs can help facilitate more industry-specific approaches to solutions. In other words, as opposed to creating connections between device manufacturers, content owners, etc., they could help bring together, say, the telecommunications industry, the consumer packaged goods industry, or the real estate industry for a half-day confab in which portfolio companies to hear about industry-specific challenges and opportunities.
Without a stronger focus on advancing emerging technology, we could all be left stranded waiting for the next unicorn that doesn’t take off — or the next flight.