The unknown future of technology

Last week saw the fortieth anniversary of the first commercial passenger-carrying Concorde flight, as highlighted in this tweet by Aviation Week:

Concorde was probably the most well-known product of Harold Wilson’s government’s high-profile science and technology policy during the 1960s. (Strictly speaking, the joint Franco-British project started under the preceding Conservative governments, but much of the work was done under Labour.) That policy was announced in a speech in 1963, whose concluding passages included the following fateful words:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [scientific] revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry. We shall need a totally new attitude to the problems of apprenticeship, of training and re-training for skill.

“The white heat of technology” became a watchword for the Labour governments of 1964-1970. Looking back, it might also be seen as a kind of curse. Some of the highest-profile advances of this era had little lasting impact, or were undone in later years by the kind of outmoded methods and practices that Wilson said should be rejected.

Concorde was one of those disappointments. The development and production of a supersonic aircraft was an incredible achievement, but it was only purchased by the national carriers of France and Britain. Other airlines conducted evaluations, and some went as far as placing orders. All the orders were cancelled over time. Concorde remained in service with British Airways and Air France until late 2003 when it was withdrawn by both airlines, due to low passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs.

Concorde’s purpose was purely to carry passengers faster than other aircraft. This purpose was shared on the sea by another 1960s technology: the hovercraft. Just as Concorde cut the time for Atlantic air crossings, the SR.N4 hovercraft operated by Seaspeed, Hoverlloyd and (after their merger) Hoverspeed allowed passengers to cross the English Channel in a fraction of the time taken by traditional ferries.

In the end, though, not enough people wanted to pay the premium to save on their travel time. The hovercraft service between England and France ran for just over thirty years — from 1968 until 2000. The cost of fuel ultimately made the service uneconomic — especially once cross-Channel duty-free sales were outlawed (like many forms of transport, traditional retail opportunities had subsidised the core service).

The real problem for the hovercraft and for Concorde was that they prioritised the wrong thing. Whilst their progenitors (including the British government, which subsidised both projects either directly or through its management of the transport operators) concentrated on speed, travel became a volume business. As foreign travel became more common, it would be more important for operators to have craft that could service as many passengers as possible. Since the high-speed options tended to have limited capacity, they were much less attractive.

As a result, Concorde was much less successful than the Boeing 747. The latter plane was developed at about the same time, but was far more capacious and flexible in operation. Concorde could only carry a maximum of 120 passengers, whilst the smallest 747 variant carried 480 people. The 747 was also capable of longer flights. Unsurprisingly, the Boeing remains in production (albeit in updated form).

On sea, a similar pattern emerged. Whilst hovercraft services operated, the traditional ferries stayed in service. Although slower, the ferries carried 3-4 times as many passengers and cars.  It wasn’t until the Channel Tunnel opened in late 1994 with a high-speed high-volume service that the sea-borne craft of all types were properly threatened.

This stark retelling of the history of Concorde and the cross-Channel hovercraft would suggest that those investments were a complete waste — the only return was 30-40 years of high-speed travel for a small minority of travellers. But there were other benefits. The most obvious is that the Anglo-French cooperation in developing Concorde was the foundation for the Airbus consortium, which is now the main competitor to Boeing in the production of large passenger and cargo aircraft. Hovercraft technology is not dead — in a modified form, it persists in surface-effect ships such as Norway’s Skjold-class corvettes.

The outcome of these experiments could not have been foreseen. That they were not commercially successful is not a reason for suggesting that they were misconceived from the outset. Their failure arose from changes in the market (the behaviour of the travelling public and the global oil market) as well as governmental action (liberalisation of air and shipping services on both sides of the Atlantic and the Channel, together with closer European integration). I am certain that almost nobody could have predicted the result of this combination of factors, even if they had foreseen each alone. In the end, though, very few unsuccessful ventures produce absolutely nothing of value at all.

And that is where I draw a link with current technology developments in the law. As I have mentioned before, the technologies of the future are not necessarily the ones we predict in the present. That said, there is an incredible amount of technological change and experimentation in legal services at the moment. Some of those experiments will be as successful as the Boeing 747 — changing the way people use the law across the world. Some will be as exciting as the hovercraft for a while, but will ultimately be beached for reasons that are currently unforeseeable.

There are a few important things to bear in mind during this period of novelty.

Experimentation is necessary, which means that some things won’t work out quite as intended. Firms that stick to what they know might be lucky to survive, but they may still be overtaken by those that experiment and fail.

It is possible to try more than one experiment. Unlike other professional services firms, law firms struggle to diversify in the services that they offer — few stray beyond the law — but they can try different ways of working.

Don’t forget the people factor. At a technology level, Concorde and the large hovercraft were a success. They delivered exactly what was promised — fast, safe travel. But they didn’t serve people in the way they wanted. The market chose something different. Likewise, law firms’ may create technology-based services that are successful in their own terms, but fail to appeal to people for some reason. Projects that are driven by technologists (in the broadest sense of the term) are more likely to forget to consider how people (lawyers, clients, regulators, and others) might react.

What is going on elsewhere? This is crucial. The lessons learned from Concorde resonate beyond the companies and teams directly involved in that project. On the other hand, had those people paid closer attention to the development of the package holiday and the work being done in other areas of the aircraft industry, they might have decided to cut their losses much earlier than they did. Likewise, law firms need to be aware of how other firms’ experiments are progressing. Just as businesses need to avoid reinventing their own wheels, they should try not to repeat other people’s mistakes but build on their successes instead.

1 thought on “The unknown future of technology”

  1. Although it isn’t relevant to the main point of the blog post, I thought it worth noting that I have a personal connection with this history. My father worked for Saunders-Roe on the Isle of Wight during the early 1960s, including assisting in the development of the early commercial hovercraft.

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