A “theory of evolution” for technology

Dr. Rias van Wyk - Former director, Management of Technology program

It is time for the academic community to come to the aid of an old and ailing friend âÄî the âÄúscienceâÄù of technological knowledge. In other words, rather than relying on individual fields of study to come up with new bits of âÄútechnologyâÄù (a misused term I will explain below), we must study technological advancement as a process itself, across disciplines. The time is right; recent advances in the management of technology have laid the necessary groundwork to do so.

W. Brian Arthur, in his book, âÄúThe Nature of Technology,âÄù points to a deep and disturbing dichotomy. At the level of individual specialties, our technological knowledge is excellent. At the level of overall structure, it is chaotic.

He summarizes the situation: âÄúWe have no agreement on what the word âÄòtechnologyâÄô means, no overall theory of how technologies come into being, no deep understanding of what innovation consists of and no theory of evolution for technology. Missing is a set of overall principles that would give the subject a logical structure, the sort of structure that would help fill these gaps.

âÄúMissing, in other words, is a theory of technology âÄî an âÄòologyâÄô of technology.âÄù

The implications of this deficiency are deep and disruptive. We do not have the knowledge base to develop a comprehensive technological consciousness. We do not know the fundamental principles that apply equally to all technologies. We do not have the tools to help us capture technology-based innovation opportunities. And we do not have the foresight to avoid major pitfalls.

Technological initiatives such as industrial innovation, preserving the life-giving forces of nature, managing nuclear contamination, seeking wholesome and affordable food and simply pursuing clean air and water are all interrelated. We need to grasp and manage them as a coherent whole. For such a holistic grasp, we need a science of technological knowledge.

Interestingly enough, for a period in the history of scientific thought, we did have such a science âÄî it was called âÄútechnology.âÄù

Technology was one of the first fields of knowledge to be named and structured as a science. Technology had an acknowledged academic curriculum. It predated the formalization of the sciences of physics and chemistry.

Unfortunately, technology as a science lost its popularity. Its demise was exacerbated when the term âÄútechnologyâÄù became (mis)used to denote something other than what it was created for. Instead of a coherent field of knowledge, it came to mean hardware and software, as well as individual specialties such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and so on. In the end, a coherent science disappeared, leaving a nameless void. We need to redress the situation.

Fortunately, over the past few decades, a new field of knowledge has appeared called Strategic Technology Analysis. It is part of the professional field of management of technology.

It defines a technological unit as the object of inquiry, it describes the agglomeration of all units, it focuses on a common characteristic to describe different units and it offers a unifying framework.

The University of Minnesota played a leading role in the formulation of STA. In the early âÄô90s, with a grant from the Honeywell Foundation, the University established the Center for the Development of Technological Leadership âÄî later renamed the Technology Leadership Institute. The first director, professor Jack Shulman, encouraged STA. The University became the first American university to offer academic courses in the field. At present, the TLI is directed by professor Massoud Amin and continues to have a defining influence on the field of management of technology.

With these roots and with the mix of technology-linked facilities at the University, a golden opportunity exists for Minnesota to take the science of technological knowledge to its next level of maturity.