The year is 1854. Hundreds gather in the New York Crystal Palace, the iron-and-glass exhibition hall at the center of the World’s Fair, to watch a man standing on a platform four stories high, suspended by a single taut rope. A few electrifying moments pass before Elisha Otis signals his assistant, hovering by the rope with an outstretched sword, to sever the cable in two. The crowd gasps. The platform jolts—but doesn’t fall, as a pair of hidden leaf springs engage the rails, keeping Otis’s “safety elevator” miraculously in place.
A few years ago I captured the scene above as part of an online package called “27 Companies That Changed the World,” conceived by my brilliant former colleague Tim Smith. Among the companies on this great list, as the above suggests, was Otis Elevator, now part of United Technologies. And that’s because Otis’s invention didn’t just whisk people and freight up and down floors with unprecedented speed, it recast the landscape of civilization: It did nothing less than reinvent the city.
The elevator, as I wrote then, “made it possible for buildings to climb ever skyward—from the 20-story Flatiron Building in New York (equipped with Otis elevators in 1902) to the nearly 60-story Woolworth Building a decade later, to the 103-story Empire State Building in 1931.” It effectively gave birth to the skyscraper, to block after block of steel-and-glass office towers, to a kind of corporate proximity that changed the way business was done—with stacks and stacks of office workers now planted just feet apart.
Otis and his elevator transformed the world almost instantly, turning the mobility of commerce from the horizontal to the vertical, and altering everyday life in ways that few could have predicted. (Elevator music, anyone?)
I thought of that last night as I was reviewing the extraordinary lineup for our upcoming Fortune Brainstorm Health gathering in San Diego on May 2-3.
As we’ve all seen and heard, the technologies, platforms, and scientific discoveries that have emerged over the past several years—and that continue to emerge by the day and week—are changing life and the way we live. But as with the Otis elevator, it is in the downstream effects of these inventions where the most radical changes are likely to be found.
And just as the elevator’s effects were amplified by the near-simultaneous introduction of other key tools and practices—from reinforced concrete to new methods of producing steel and framing buildings to modern ventilation systems—so, too, the most transformative of effects over the next decade or two are sure to be found in the confluence of new technologies and ideas.
Take big data. Alone, it is merely noise. But with an algorithm that enables a system to read, study, and learn, it is a vehicle for expanding knowledge. Now couple that couple with the tools that allow real-time connectivity across the globe and you suddenly have a mobile, locally accessible expert. Now introduce smartphone technology and applications that let the information exchange, virtual examination, and imaging happen in multiple directions—between patient and physician and hospital—and you’ve made a doctor’s visit smarter, faster, and cheaper. Throw in other systems and platforms that alert us earlier to health problems (perhaps even before they’ve begun)—and that make the costs of this care more transparent and let us pay for it in new ways—and you have a bona fide healthcare revolution.
We will dig into all of this with some of the smartest people on the planet at our 2nd annual Fortune Brainstorm Health conference in just a few weeks. We’ll be talking with the CEOs, scientists, technologists, investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other thought leaders at the forefront of this revolution—and we’ll have, in addition, one very special guest who will share some insights and experiences that will, without question, move us. (More on that soon.)
We’ll, of course, report on and live-stream what we can. But here’s a nomination form for those who would like to be there in person. Given how small and intimate our gathering is, I’m afraid it has to be invitation-only (and space is truly limited), but if you want to be a part of what I’m guessing will be a mind-opening two days of conversation, thought, and interaction, we’d love to have you apply.
Enjoy the weekend. More news below.
This essay appears in today's edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.