Got Time?

June 1, 2015

Few things seem to be so quantified, tracked or valued as “time.” Adorned on wrists, perched atop town square bell towers and pulsing on night stands, time surrounds us.  We covet controlling it, owning it, and having “our” time. This focus on precision and timeliness is a relatively new invention, but our quest to control time is an old one, and catalyzed the concept of eternity – a timeless existence that people and cultures across the world have long strived toward.

Our obsession with time is the heartbeat of most innovation. Perhaps we hope to get to work faster, using traffic avoidance routing, or to simplify the experience or duration of routine tasks we need to perform. If your startup’s product has a true time saving attribute, you are often on the right track.

We even price innovation with discounted cash flows and net present values, and reflect on our time-bound performances on the basis of internal rates of return. “Time is money,” or so we say.

But how did we get here? The simple ability to track time, beyond that of the sundial and lunar and seasonal cycles, was not considered important until the industrial revolution in the late 1800’s, when production became systematized. Workers began to participate in shifts, and promptness – for the first time in history – became critical. Schedules emerged and compensation became time-centric. Trains had to run on time and shops had to synchronize with customer schedules. We began to connect time, value and money together.

At least at the level of the individual, extra time has been “given.”  Since the 1900’s, the average human life span has increased by approximately three months each year. The advances that began with aseptic techniques, to antibiotics, to vaccines, to new tremendous medical interventions that even include transplanting organs between the living and the dead, have “given” time to millions across the world. Advances that are approaching will “give” much, much more time as well, and the upper limits remain unclear.

The price and worth of time remains very personal and yet hotly contested. When the calculus is the value of an ultra-speed rail or the convenience of at-home or expedited delivery services, the market helps us define the value based simply on the price we are willing to pay. But when the calculation is one that prices the value of extending a life, our market-based model quickly derails.

Several reasons for this exist; the first relates to surety. Given our biological diversity, medical interventions that seek to provide longevity or disease interception have imprecise efficacy. As a result, we struggle to calculate the correct value when we have diverse outcomes. The second reason results from disintermediation – because most purchasing/pricing decisions are made not by the actual recipient, but by an insurer or healthcare system, a personalized value assessment is missing. It is rather straightforward to estimate the economic contribution of adding X years onto the lifespan of a person with Y potential.  Yet the willingness to pay between two individuals offered identical treatment outcomes is substantial. Each of us see our lives, trade-offs and value of our time very differently.

2015 has been heralded as the year of the iWatch, a new Apple device poised to potentially save the rapidly declining sales of wrist watches. The jury is out on how (or if) customers will embrace the new device, which promises to tell us much more than just the time, and seeks to simplify our relationship with wearables and technology. But more centrally this year, and for many yet to come, society will be asked to value (and price) remarkable new medical solutions that not only help us appreciate time, but that are in the unique class of innovations with the potential to “give” time. As we seek to make these calculations and find ways to ensure equitable access, we will be giving individuals across the world the opportunity to step into the next economic revolution.