How Synthetic Industries Replaced Natural Sources and Transformed the World (The Pattern of Disruption, Part 3) — Rethink Disruption

Flight — from mythology to reality

Cave paintings suggest that human beings have long imagined being like birds. A painting from the Stone Age discovered in Sulawesi, Indonesia, appears to depict the oldest-known mythological figures — including one that mixes human and bird-like features.

Today’s food disruption was anticipated over a century ago

Now we are in that same early ‘take off’ period for a number of industries related to food, energy and transportation, among others. Many of the underlying ideas, like growing meat or milk without the use of animals, are older than any person now alive.

Professor Marcellin Berthelot, as depicted in McClure’s Magazine, September 1894

Color revolutions and the transformation of textile industries

Today, we take for granted the vast availability and cheapness of colors in our clothing. If a group of fashion models was able to time-travel back just a few centuries, they might well be seen as strange, garish creatures due simply to the vast palette of colors they are wearing due to the limited availability and higher cost of dyes.

Why do smart people in smart organizations fail to anticipate disruption?

It is not as though the disruption of a dyestuff was unprecedented — the natural red dye alizarin was disrupted by synthetic red dyes about twenty years prior, again due principally to the work of German chemists, as we pointed out in ‘X Marks Disruption’ (page 33 in our report Rethinking Climate Change).

The rubber revolution

The synthetic chemistry industry, using feedstock chemicals from coal tar or from petroleum, gave rise to the first artificial dyes and to the pharmaceutical industry. But it also led to a variety of other applications, including plastics, artificial fibers, and synthetic rubber. In his 1894 interview Professor Berthelot said, “long before the promised failure of the rubber trees to supply the demands of commerce, synthetic rubber will, in all probability, have filled the void.”



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RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank


RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.