As we begin 2023 and I mark the 50th year of my career, I have been reflecting on a lifetime I have lived witnessing dramatic innovation, and social and political change, as we all live in a very different world than I did as a young boy growing up in the Deep South of the 1950s. We are a better country today because of the impacts of equality and inclusion in our culture that touch every corner of our work and social lives, and all for the good.
History teaches us that the invention of the railroad in the early 1800s was a seminal moment in our evolution, as up until then, people had never traveled faster than the speed of a horse. What followed was the Industrial Revolution; the telegraph, telephone, electricity, the lightbulb and all manner of other inventions were born. Process changes like Samuel Colt’s invention of interchangeable parts, Henry Ford’s assembly line, and the creation of consumer credit all played a part in launching the modern 20th century.
Innovation. But what fascinates me the most is the innovation I have witnessed in my lifetime that has revolutionized us and has brought us to ever-higher levels of productivity, entertainment and comfort in our lives. My childhood was spent with only a couple of hours each night in front of a black-and-white television set, and other nights in front of a hi-fi music system that even predated stereo.
Then a number of things happened, some evolutionary, some revolutionary, that brought us to the world we live in today. It started with the invention of the semiconductor, first called a transistor, which displaced the vacuum tube as the source for powering and processing our television and radio signals.
The broadcast world changed in the 1970s with the advent of cable television, which gave rise to dozens, and later hundreds, of channels with a myriad of viewing options. Music evolved to stereo, four- and eight-track stereo systems, the cassette player and the CD. And all that programming brought social change, at times revolution, as broadcast shaped us as a society. Jet travel, man’s missions into space and to the moon, and other transportation evolutions drew the world closer together, and our nation’s social appetites and norms became the aspiration of the world.
Three Big Innovations. But in my mind, three big innovations have had a seismic impact on our global economy and revolutionized business and society as whole, and all occurred during the course of my business career: cellular telephony, the Internet and the PC/Apple inventions. They have brought us to a far higher level of information and productivity than we could ever have imagined when I started out in the business world in the mid-1970s.
What I recall about this innovation over the last 40-plus short years is the change they brought, and how it propelled our economy to new heights. Look at the value that has been created by the biggest names in tech, reaching into the trillions of dollars.
Giant Breakthrough. And now, yet another giant breakthrough has been revealed, a development that in my mind has the kind of impact that the invention of the semiconductor, the cellular phone or the Internet launched. We learned recently that scientists shot a cluster of lasers at helium isotopes – the experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California marked the first time that a fusion reaction spun off more energy than was used to create it, so fusion offers the potential for virtually limitless, clean energy.
It’s an important milestone; yes, commercial fusion is likely still decades off, but as a clean source of energy, nuclear fusion could help replace fossil fuels and overcome climate change while bringing energy efficiency to new levels.
I won’t see the fruits of this breakthrough in practical use in my lifetime but imagine what it means for our industry: it will bring untold benefits in increased aggregate production with ever-cleaner and lower energy input costs.
Welcome to 2023, and all the future holds.
Pierre G. Villere serves as president and senior managing partner of Allen-Villere Partners, an investment banking firm with a national practice in the construction materials industry that specializes in mergers and acquisitions. He has a career spanning almost five decades, and volunteers his time to educate the industry as a regular columnist in publications and through presentations at numerous industry events. Contact Pierre via email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @allenvillere.