forces rarely if ever dictate the path of innovation, but they play an important role in speeding or slowing progress and in shifting direction. One can see how the restructuring of the telecommunications industry facilitated the development of cellular telephones, how the abundance of venture capital in the 1990s accelerated progress in computer and information technology, how public anxiety about nuclear power slowed its development, how environmental rules influenced the path of development in automotive and energy technology, and how government support for graduate education has helped create the sophisticated specialists in research and product development that make the United States so successful.
Looking at these nontechnological forces alone will tell us little about the future of technology; besides, it’s impossible to say exactly how these forces will evolve over time. But understanding how they are likely to interact with technological forces will give us a much more realistic picture of how technology will evolve. This paper does not aspire to present a comprehensive view of all the external forces that can shape technological development. Rather, it looks at some of the major social forces that are important to the general climate for innovation, and it explores a few individual cases to illustrate how a different mix of lesser factors can influence a specific technology or industry. One could quickly compile a list of other factors—say, trade policy or tax policy—that are important but are not even mentioned here. The landscape of innovation is too vast and various to allow technologies in any simple template. The goal of this paper is to stimulate participants to think broadly about social forces when they begin to focus in on the likely trajectory of a specific technology.
Because most innovation takes place in industry, it makes sense to begin there. Several important industries are in upheaval. Electric utilities are breaking up into distribution, transmission, generation, and energy management companies. Chemical companies are moving into agricultural biotechnology. Many small medical biotechnology firms have been formed in the past two decades, and it is not yet clear if they will remain independent or be acquired by the giant pharmaceutical companies when they begin to make commercial products. And surprises are possible. Celera Genomics, the private company that raced the federal government to map the human genome, now defines itself as an information company. The future of the communications market is also uncertain. There is no doubt that there will be a growing demand for broadband Internet connections, but it remains to be seen if one of the industries now providing these links—local phone companies, long-distance phone companies, cable TV providers, satellite TV companies, or perhaps a new entrant such as the electric utilities—will come to dominate. Health care has seen enormous growth in managed care in the past decade, but it’s still not clear what the future will be. Although we are not likely to see soon a dramatically expanded government role in health care after the