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Take a moment to think about what the world must have looked like to J.P. Morgan a century ago, in 1919. He was not only an immensely powerful financier with access to the great industrialists of the day, but also an early adopter of new technologies. One of the first electric generators was installed at his home.
The disruptive technologies of the day, electricity and internal combustion, were already almost 40 years old, but had little measurable economic impact. Life largely went on as it always had. That would quickly change over the next decade when those technologies would drive a 50-year boom in productivity unlike anything the world had ever seen before.
It is very likely that we are at a similar point now. Despite significant advances in technology, productivity growth has been depressed for most of the last 50 years. Over the next ten years, however, we’re likely to see that change as nascent technologies hit their stride and create completely new industries. Here’s what you’ll need to know to compete in the new era.
1. Value will shift from Bits to Atoms:
Over the past few decades innovation has become almost synonymous with digital technology. Every 18 months or so, semiconductor manufacturers would bring out a new generation of processors that were twice as powerful as what came before. These, in turn, would allow entrepreneurs to imagine completely new possibilities.
However, while the digital revolution has given us snazzy new gadgets, the impact has been muted. Sure, we have hundreds of TV channels and we’re able to talk to our machines and get coherent answers back, but even at this late stage information and communication technologies make up only about 6% of GDP in advanced countries.
At first, that sounds improbable. How could so much change produce so little effect? But think about going to a typical household in 1960, before the digital revolution took hold. You would likely see a TV, a phone, household appliances and a car in the garage. Now think of a typical household in 1910, with no electricity or running water. Even simple chores like cooking and cleaning took hours of backbreaking labor.
The truth is that much of our economy is still based on what we eat, wear and live in, which is why it’s important that the nascent technologies of today, such as synthetic biology and materials science, are rooted in the physical world. Over the next generation, we can expect innovation to shift from bits back to atoms.
2. Innovation will slow down:
We’ve come to take it for granted that things always accelerate because that’s what has happened for the past 30 years or so. So we’ve learned to deliberate less, to rapidly prototype and iterate and to “move fast and break things” because, during the digital revolution, that’s what you needed to do to compete effectively.
Yet microchips are very old technology that we’ve come to understand very, very well. When a new generation of chips came off the line, they were faster and better but worked the same way as earlier versions. That won’t be true with new computing architectures such as quantum and neuromorphic computing. We’ll have to learn how to use them first.
In other cases, such as genomics and artificial intelligence, there are serious ethical issues to consider. Under what conditions is it okay to permanently alter the germline of a species. Who is accountable for the decisions and algorithm makes? On what basis should those decisions be made? To what extent do they need to be explainable and auditable?
Innovation is a process of discovery, engineering and transformation. At the moment, we find ourselves at the end of one transformational phase and about to enter a new one. It will take a decade or so to understand these new technologies enough to begin to accelerate again. We need to do so carefully. As we have seen over the past few years, when you move fast and break things, you run the risk of breaking something important.
3. Ecosystems will drive technology:
Let’s return to J.P. Morgan in 1919 and ask ourselves why electricity and internal combustion had so little impact up to that point. Automobiles and electric lights had been around a long time, but adoption takes time. It takes a while to build roads, to string wires and to train technicians to service new inventions reliably.
As economist Paul David pointed out in his classic paper, The Dynamo and the Computer, it takes time for people to learn how to use new technologies. Habits and routines need to change to take full advantage of new technologies. For example, in factories, the biggest benefit electricity provided was through enabling changes in workflow.
The biggest impacts come from secondary and tertiary technologies, such as home appliances in the case of electricity. Automobiles did more than provide transportation but enabled a shift from corner stores to supermarkets and, eventually, shopping malls. Refrigerated railroad cars revolutionized food distribution. Supply chains were transformed. Radios, and later TV, reshaped entertainment.
Nobody, not even someone like J.P. Morgan could have predicted all that in 1919, because it’s ecosystems, not inventions, that drive transformation and ecosystems are non-linear. We can’t simply extrapolate out from the present and get a clear future of what the future is going to look like.
4. You need to start now:
The changes that will take place over the next decade or so are likely to be just as transformative—and possibly even more so—than those that happened in the 1920s and 30s. We are on the brink of a new era of innovation that will see the creation of entirely new industries and business models.
Yet the technologies that will drive the 21st century are still mostly in the discovery and engineering phases, so they’re easy to miss. Once the transformation begins in earnest, however, it will likely be too late to adapt. In areas like genomics, materials science, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, if you get a few years behind, you may never catch up.
So the time to start exploring these new technologies is now and there are ample opportunities to do so. The Manufacturing USA Institutes are driving advancement in areas as diverse as biofabrication, additive manufacturing and composite materials. IBM has created its Q Network to help companies get up to speed on quantum computing and the Internet of Things Consortium is doing the same thing in that space.
Make no mistake, if you don’t explore, you won’t discover. If you don’t discover you won’t invent. And if you don’t invent, you will be disrupted eventually, it’s just a matter of time. It’s always better to prepare than to adapt and the time to start doing that is now.
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