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Prelude: EE Vignette 1—Rodney Brooks and external enablement of robotics ventures

In 2017, Australian-born robotics professor-cum-entrepreneur Rodney Brooks delivered a speech at the inaugural MIT-QUT entrepreneurship bootcamp in Brisbane. Being a robotics entrepreneur, one would have thought to hear a story about important technological advances invented in a new generation of robots that possess improved or entirely new functionality. Alternatively, one could have expected to hear a story about technological advances made by others that made it possible for Rod and his team to develop his robots in the first place.
However, although technological advances are obviously important to robotics businesses, Rod did not talk much about those, neither as crafted by himself (internal) nor those made by others outside of his entrepreneurial robotics ventures (external enablement by new technology). Instead, his talk started with demographic developments in China. Rod explained that these suggest there will not be enough people to fill all of China’s mega-factories. To this we can add that socioeconomic developments in China would also contribute to making it increasingly expensive, and in many cases impossible, to recruit young Chinese into such work. The result? Massive demand expansion for industrial robots was on the horizon.1 He then turned to demographic developments in Japan, where ageing of the population and low birth rates are even more extreme than in China. The implication he saw? Irrespective of their societal or cultural appetite, the Japanese would likely be urged to accept broad application of robots to maintain care for the elderly, as the future does not hold enough working-age population to care for the large numbers of elderly citizens. And in this vein, Rod Brooks continued. He talked about 9/11, the Fukushima nuclear calamity, and the Afghan war as examples of extreme environments in which humans cannot or would rather not operate, again

pointing to a need for robots to fill the gap. The 9/11 and Fukushima examples illustrate how a sudden and unpredictable onset of a business-environmental change favored those who through luck or strategic foresight had specialized in developing robots robust enough to take on these challenging environments when the need arose.
Rod then rounded off his presentation with a look into the future: robotic solutions to plastic pollution of the world’s oceans. This, of course, would require development of robots suitable for the task, which is one example of a future project Rod intended to start at that point. In other words, this manmade change to the natural environment is already both triggering and shaping the development of new products.2
In all, within the time it took him to deliver a keynote address during a lunch break, Rodney Brooks ticked off most of the conceptual elements that feature in the external enablement framework (EEF) we began developing around the same time; and inadvertently, or at least unknowingly, he contributed strongly to our efforts by confirming its relevance.3 In fact, in his speech Rod addressed technological, demographic, sociocultural, and natural-environmental types of business-environmental changes—which is what we call external enablers (EE)—with varying spatial, sectoral, sociodemographic and temporal scope, and onset ranging from the sudden disasters and wars that sprung out of evolving intercultural differences, to slowly creeping demographic shifts and predictable future developments like increasing ocean pollution. His talk covered what we call different enabling mechanism and different roles (such as triggering, product-shaping, and process-shaping) in the EE terminology, and he also explained how different types of EEs can at times provide the same mechanisms contributing to the same roles, like demand expansion driving venture triggering and product shaping. In short, his talk covered much of the phenomena we set out to codify through the external enablement framework’s concepts and which are covered in breadth and depth in this article

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