Since the industrial revolution, we have undergone five waves of innovation. These waves have brought new technologies and have radically transformed society. This book predicts the sixth wave to come, a period that will be defined by resource efficiency.
Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev put forward the idea that Western capitalist economies go through waves of innovation. These waves are like mountains, with a rise at the beginning and a fall at the end.
A change that causes innovation includes the obvious development of new technologies, such as the introduction of the mobile phone. Another development that causes innovation is changes in what consumers want. An example of this is the rise of SMS, which became unexpectedly popular amongst consumers. Then, there are changes in institutions that enable the first two points to come together. These are the towers and transmitters that create the infrastructure required for mobile phone communication. With this framework, an innovation can truly take off.
The first half of the book looks at the five previous waves, and what we can learn from them. A reason why the last wave, the information and communication technology wave, was so successful is because of how effectively it reduced transaction costs. Sending an email is much cheaper and easier than posting a letter, because it reduces the transaction costs of both time and money. The companies that were successful during this wave harnessed this new technology to reduce such costs.
The second half of the book explores how to make the most of the new sixth wave. We are at the fall of the previous wave, and at the cusp of this new wave. This is a period that can be disruptive, as the world needs to readjust. But such disruptions are also inspiring, since traditional methods can finally be challenged.
The sixth wave will be driven by resource efficiency. Our most precious resources are dwindling. And by necessity, we need to seriously consider the true value of natural resources. In the same way that the fifth wave reduced transaction costs, in the sixth wave, reducing the cost of waste will be vital in our resource limited world. A successful sixth wave business will be based on resource efficiency. We are already seeing this through the many brands of reusable takeaway cups available. All sources of waste will become opportunities to reduce waste and create value.
Produce and information flourish in different settings, and therefore the waste they create can be reduced through different methods. The energy used to transport goods can be easily eliminated by emphasising local produce instead. On the other hand, information requires much less energy when it is sent digitally. For this reason, information can travel globally across the internet. As the book succinctly states, "atoms are local, bits are global".
Another key premise of the sixth wave is to sell services, not products. Sharing services, such as those for cars and bikes, allow consumers to use a product and gain value from it without having to buy it outright. Less resources can then used for the same, and sometimes greater, utility.
The book talks about digital natives, a term that was coined by American author Marc Prensky in 2001. This term is used to describe the generation that grew up with computers and the internet. Consequently, this generation has been able to embrace new technologies the best. The book then coins the term eco-natives to describe a similar concept—those who have grown up in a world that is environmentally conscious, and therefore already have these considerations well formed in their minds.
I like this idea, as it made me think of the younger generation championing environmental issues that older generations have chosen to ignore. I thought of Greta Thunberg, who recently arrived at New York after sailing across the Atlantic for two weeks. By travelling via the lowest carbon option available and truly encompassing her values, she has also been mocked by older generations.
The writing in The Sixth Wave is extremely clear and easy to read, and it was enjoyable to putter along without getting stumbled by jargon. However, much of the content in the first half of the book was repeated. While the first half rambled at times, the second half seemed to have a much clearer idea of what knowledge it wanted to impart. This book would have been closer to five stars if the first half was more succinct.
In the conclusion of the book, the authors take another step and imagine what the seventh wave could look like. Maybe once we conquer our problems with waste, we can look to improving the inefficiencies of human resources. Still, the rise and fall of the wave, and the generations that develop with them, is an inspiring visualisation. Reading all the ways we can capture this wave and knowing that others are growing up even more environmentally conscious than myself, like Greta, makes me hopeful.