Companies are always trying to develop products that make our lives better, but these days some of the most advanced technologies are being aimed at a category that used to be the province of dishwashers and no-iron shirts: goods and services that give us more time.
In our daily lives, we all have time-consuming activities that are not economically productive, in the sense that they don't produce goods and services that have value nor do they give us pleasure. A prime example is commuting. We have to commute in order to go from our homes to our jobs, but the time we spend driving or riding public transportation is not always productive or enjoyable.
According to some fairly recent estimates, Americans spend between 45 minutes and an hour commuting each day. Given that most Americans have about two weeks of paid vacation per year, plus perhaps the same amount of public holidays and sick days, the average working American may spend about 200 hours commuting annually. For the roughly 140 million working Americans, that’s 28 billion hours that could otherwise be devoted to work or leisure.
These hours are worth money. How much would you pay to get an hour of your day back, to do whatever you wanted? Even if the average American would only pay $23, which is roughly the average hourly wage in the private sector, all that commuting time is worth $644 billion, or about 4 percent of gross domestic product. Getting our hours back would be a boon to our living standards, even if we just used it for leisure.
It turns out that doing this is a fairly high-tech problem. Devices like smart phones, tablets, and laptops are already allowing commuters who don’t drive themselves to recover some of these hours for activities of their choosing – a step up from books and newspapers. Soon, the advent of self-driving cars will open up these possibilities to today’s car commuters, too. And computers that operate using voice or even eye commands will allow pedestrian commuters to make the most of their time on the street. These are not cheap technologies, but the value of the time they claw back from commuting may eventually make them commonplace.
The most direct way to recover commuting time, of course, is not to commute at all. Telecommuting is on the rise around the world, most notably in poorer countries where the broadband and mobile infrastructures have arrived before the transportation infrastructure. As the global urbanization wave intensifies and cities become denser, telecommuting will become increasingly desirable. In Sao Paulo (population 11.3 million) alone, the cost of commuting – both monetary and in the value of the time lost – may be as high as $20 billion a year.
Telecommuting is only part of the time-saving picture, along with online shopping, electronic bill payment, social networking, and other services that save travel time and attention. As our time gets more valuable, in parallel with the value of the things we produce, time-saving products will become more valuable, too – with enormous opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs. Now, if someone would only invent a time-saving substitute for shaving….
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