If you are going to send a rocket to the moon, you need to be very sure of every component and instrument that forms part of that expedition. Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) are measures devised by NASA in the 1980s to assess the maturity of evolving technologies – devices, materials, components, etc. – that they use within their course of business. The idea is that when a new technology is first invented, it is not suitable for immediate application. New technologies are subjected to experimentation, refinement, and ongoing testing. Once the technology is sufficiently proven, it can be incorporated into the system – in this case, a spaceship.
There is a major distinction between digital applications which can drive the EU economy quickly and competitively in the global market, and the traditional techno-centric discourse which largely relies on the concept of TRLs.
The TRL model is driven by the degree of maturity requested from technology and is particularly suited to its original context. NASA typically deals with high-risk technologies that carry high development costs. It creates projects that are aimed at very few end users, and which yield important user data only after final deployment.
But rocket ships are not the technologies that drive modern economy. Most of what drives the EU economy are low-risk, cheap-to-deploy applications, which engage early adopters and generate data from users at early stages of deployment. These models require a broader set of parameters to account for the agile, iterative nature of technological innovation in the digital space.
A creative application will typically be low-risk, cheap to run (especially relative to rocket ships), easy to understand, and can potentially get millions of early adopters, even as an experimental proof-of-concept. This may account for the fact that the largest number of successfully-funded projects on Kickstarter in 2013 were developed in the music domain – a rise of 305% compared to the previous year. It is highly unlikely that someone will die from deploying music technology projects to fans / backers at early stages of development.
Yet early deployment will often guarantee a dedicated following with a vested interest in the project – people who will willingly contribute to the project, consider themselves privileged to be part of the select few who are “in the know”, and who can proudly display a sense of ownership of the invention for helping it get off the ground and become successful.
The appropriate way to measure the impact of these early adopter models would have to account for 1) the level of risk; 2) the number of potential early adopters; 3) potential to yield data from early adoption; and finally 4) the technology readiness. I propose we call them Market Adoption Readiness Models (MARLs).
For a potential investor, a large number of early adopters (and their substantial related datasets) have often proven to be sufficient incentives for investment and acquisition in early stages of development (which would traditionally occupy the space between the experimental TRL3 and more advanced TRL7). In the creative applications sector therefore, the market is extremely agile, with development of applications being cheap and typically low risk, and a great potential of investment and acquisition through clearly demonstrable social and economic benefits in early stages.
In addition to this, the agile nature of the digital market and the relatively cheap deployment of competitive applications requires active development and evolution of technologies via constant innovation and new iterations of products and systems. It is essential that the product constantly evolves, or else it will lose out to competition. It is important therefore to focus primarily on early deployment in order to maximise on the creative engagement with the tools by early adopter creative content maker communities. This ensures the potential for growth through feedback loops and iterative stages of active development, and capitalises on collaboration and agile and adaptive innovation for maximum market competitiveness.
For this reason I consider the MARLs model to be intrinsically associated with the disruptive nature of the Allternet, where continuous participation, constant innovation and creative engagement are encouraged via a series of open platforms.
Market Adoption Readiness Levels provide a framework for assessing technologies that may be creative and experimental, but usefully eliminate inertia, unnecessary delays, and creative paralysis. They generate conversation points and active engagement through early adoption, feedback and iteration. They leverage the ‘minimum viable product’ approach to digital innovation suited to an entrepreneurial environment where data is the primary currency.
This year, in order to gather a large amount of data about our solar system, a team of scientists and engineers have created a low cost, open source, open access, mass space exploration system called Pocket Spacecraft. Using Kickstarter, thousands of people have joined the project to create their own ‘minimum viable product’ expedition to the moon.
In 2014, even space exploration itself can be exempt from TRLs.