If we want a sustainable future we have to build things that can be built on top of
‘The old A30’ is now a nature reverse where kids ride bikes, old couples go for walks on Sundays, and the occasional adder suns itself. Before this old road was replaced by the new A30 it was one of the busiest roads in Cornwall, notorious for traffic jams and accidents. But before it was a metaled road for the modern motorcar it was a coaching route for horse-drawn coaches traveling between Bodmin and Indian Queens. And long before that it may have been used by the Roman army marching between the east and west sides of Cornwall. And even longer before that it might have a prehistoric trackway. It’s had quite a history.
What makes that history fascinating, when looking back from our point in history, is how the road was built upon over time. The same road, taking more or less the same route, serving the same purpose, for thousands of years. Until now. Now it’s no longer a road. It was replaced, not build upon as it had been generation after generation, but replaced with something completely new.
Replacing things rather than repairing and upgrading them can’t be a purely 20th/21st century idea, but it isn’t hard to see how the technological innovation, capitalism, free market and competition, consumerism, advertising, and a thousand other things of the last few hundred years have formed the psyche of the modern world that leads us to think that building new things to replace old things is better than building upon old things.
Maybe what we can build upon and what we must replace depends on the nature of the thing. Are physical things different to immaterial things? Perhaps the first communication network people ever build was signal fires on beacon hills to warn settlements in the valleys below of invading clans. Millennia later, legend has it that once there was a time where there was nowhere a person could stand in England and not hear church bells ringing out to call worshipers from the fields and villages. The churches formed a different communications network, with a different purpose and using different technology, than the signal fires. They did not build upon or replace the physical infrastructure of the signal fires, but perhaps they took similar ideas about mass communication and built upon them.
New technologies brought new communication networks. Radio and television didn’t replace or build upon the churches and bell ringing, anymore than they did so with the signal fires, but the idea of broadcasting the same message to the masses from a central location was built upon and taken to further with refined messages available all day everyday. And then came the internet and the world wide web. Building upon those mass communication ideas and upon the telecommunications infrastructure, replacing old wires with new, and enabling more people to send a receive even more refined messages, the internet can trace it’s origins back to those signal fires that stood ready to warn our ancestors of danger.
How much of what we build today is built with a future in mind that includes being built upon? Our modern business thinking conditions us to believe that being disrupted and replaced as a bad thing, unless we’re the ones doing the replacing, beating the competition by achieving the competitive advantage that comes from customer lock-in and network effects. Where collaboration is mentioned in business plans and strategic text books it is as a means of partnering with other organisations to achieve even greater competitive advantage. Never is any thought given to collaborating with future organisations, in as yet un-imagined ways by building things that can be built upon.
If we want to create a sustainable future we must consider whether to replace or to build upon, what to take from before or to create new, and when to be competitive or truly collaborative. When we build things we should have an eye on the possible future of what could be built upon our thing and make that it a reality. We can give the builders of the future more choices if we make the right decisions now.