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Disruptive Technologies - Navigating New Opportunities and Risks

Richard Watson, Futurist-in-Residence at the Tech Foresight Practice at Imperial College London

I stumbled upon a Wikipedia page recently about disruptive technologies. While the page provided a good summary of what’s coming next, it failed to excite me for a number of reasons. First, although the technologies were grouped by industry or sector, which was useful, there was no chronology or ranking of potential force. I thought Imperial’s Tech Foresight team could do better, so here, for your delectation and delight, is a table of 100 emerging technologies ranked by both time and disruptive potential put together by Anna Cupani and I, with the input and feedback of many academics and brilliantly brought to life by Lawrence Whiteley at Wond.

The technologies are divided into four groups. Horizon one technologies (green bottom left on the table) are technologies that are happening right now. If they are appropriate to your business, you should be integrating and executing these technologies right now.

Horizon two technologies (yellow) are probable near future technologies (10-20 years hence). Experiment and discuss if appropriate.

Horizon three technologies (red) are technologies that are likely to emerge in the more distant future (20 years plus). Keep an eye on developments in these areas and explore if appropriate.

The outer edge of the table (grey) contains what we’ve termed Ghost Technologies. This is fringe thinking with some examples bordering on lunacy. However, while each example is highly improbable none, or very few, are actually impossible. There was some debate as to whether to include this section on the basis that many of these ‘technologies’ are pseudo-science, but if the history of science & technology tells us anything it’s surely that what starts off as impossible or implausible often ends up being obvious or inevitable.

Finally, on the far right of the table are examples of companies active in each of the technology areas.  We are grateful to Gaby Lee for her help and extensive search on the internet. We excluded Imperial College here because it felt like we might be blowing our own trumpet a little too much. Also, because a planned future version is proposed that will highlight where Imperial is active.

So, here’s a billion-dollar question.

Assuming this table is roughly correct, how might you spot the companies or organisations that will succeed commercially? Which companies might you invest in or acquire? To my mind, this is roughly the same as asking what are the rules for innovation or how might you make your company more innovative and better positioned to succeed in a competitive and volatile environment?

My own particular background is in innovation working with the likes of Virgin, Toyota, and Unilever and I’ve been an expert blogger on innovation for Fast Company magazine in the US too, so I think I may have acquired some useful perspectives long the way about what makes some companies world famous while consigning others to the dustbin of obscurity.

The first of my lessons learnt is that being roughly right is often better than being perfectly right. ‘Perfect’ can take a very long time, creates a lot of arguments and quite often the world has moved on by the time you are ready with ‘perfection.’ With many products, being roughly right and quick (ironing out any imperfections after launch) is often better than endless deliberation. This is more or less the Facebook motto of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ or the Silicon Valley idea of ‘Failing Fast.’ There are plenty of exceptions to this. With art perfection is worth the effort, but if you work in pharmaceuticals, being roughly right might actually kill someone.

My second lesson learnt when it comes to innovation, especially radical innovation, is that Peter Drucker, the management guru, was right. When it comes to innovation, culture eats process for breakfast.

If you’ve got the wrong culture no amount of process or management consultancy can save you. You can change a culture, of course, but in my experience this takes many years. In contrast, if you’ve got the right culture, innovation will, up to a point, naturally emerge through osmosis.

What constitutes the right culture? That’s tricky to pin down, but I’d say a company that’s curious, questioning and playful. Also, one that’s nimble and is not strangled by bureaucracy. One that tolerates failure and gives people the freedom to experiment too.

Being on a mission and having a well-defined enemy helps too. Think Apple and Microsoft in the early days or perhaps Virgin Vs. British Airways before Virgin’s David turned into another Goliath.

However, great cultures don’t just emerge. They generally come from the top of an organisation and are usually created by a charismatic CEO with a well-articulated vision of the future or, better still, a founder with something to prove.

A third thing I’ve learnt is that you never really know. What I mean by this is that nothing is 100% certain and nothing is guaranteed to work. There are no fool-proof rules. Things that should work often don’t and things that shouldn’t work often do. The only way to find if something really will work is, again, to experiment.  That’s really the mind-set you’re after. Keep exploring, keep adapting, keep evolving, keep trying.

OK, so that’s a bit of broad theory about innovation. How about some specific and thoroughly practical tips?

1. My first tip is to get to know as many young people as possible and hire as many as you can too. These people are more invested in the future than your or I, and they tend to be more closely aligned with change too. But don’t get too carried away. Young people tend to drive disruption, as anyone that’s read Thomas Kuhn’s classic book on the structure of scientific revolutions might remember, but you need to get the right balance between old and wise and young and energetic. Both must respect the other too.

2. My second tip also comes from Thomas Kuhn. New discoveries and ideas are often happy accidents and while the creation of such serendipitous events is difficult, keeping your eyes and ears wide open to interesting anomalies isn’t. This idea links to weak-signals in scenario planning lingo and perhaps with ethnographic research and design thinking too. As someone once said, the most powerful phrase in science isn’t “Eureka!” it’s “that’s interesting!”

3. Tip three is cross-fertilisation. New ideas are often novel combinations of old ideas, so mix things up a little in terms of the diversity of everything from people attending meetings and workshops to office seating plans. Or take an idea that works in one context and think about how it might be combined to work in another.

Only this morning I was playing around with a bottle of cough medicine that featured a label that could be peeled back to reveal a second, hidden, label containing further product information. What if you took this principle of hidden information and applied it to another product?

Finally, I’d like to leave you with something that’s definitely more of a mind-set that a top tip. The world is becoming more complex, volatile, ambiguous and uncertain, which creates a craving for sense making, stability, rules and logic.

It also creates a thirst for knowing what’s next. We are contagiously curious about trends, especially tech trends that we somehow think of as being fool-proof ways of being in the right place at the right time.

There’s nothing wrong with following trends. Indeed, they are essential for incremental innovation and continuous product improvement. But remember that trends bend and many eventually snap if used too often or stretched too far. Critically, if more or less everyone is more or less following the same key trends, doesn’t that mean that more or less everyone is thinking along similar lines?

Trends are what the really smart innovators break. Successful innovators don’t follow, they create. They don’t codify conventional wisdom, they smash it to pieces and jump up and down on the fragments shouting “I’ll show you.” They don’t let dogma and other peoples’ opinions smother their own originality or intuition either.  In short, they are the architects of their own future and you must be the same in your own distinctive way.

Richard Watson

Richard Watson

Futurist-in-Residence at the Tech Foresight Practice at Imperial College London

Founder of nowandnext.com

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