Progress and disruption go hand in hand. The history of human civilization is characterized by periodic dances between old technologies resisting newer ones, with the latter ultimately ending up victorious — before inevitably becoming old and ripe for disruption once more. The horse and buggy made way for the gasoline-powered automobile, which is bound to be replaced by electric vehicles; the radio quickly lost ground to the television, which — along with print press and virtually every other form of traditional media — became disrupted by the internet.
What about the next wave of disruptions? Richard Watson, a leading futurist and lecturer at the London Business School, recently compiled some of the most promising technologies that seem set on shaking different industries from the ground up.
Watson teamed up with colleagues from Tech Foresight at Imperial College London, as well as an ex-BBC researcher to help list companies that are leading the way for each disrupting tech. Be it retail, finance, food, transport, computing, energy, or health, no industry seems to be spared by the waves of innovation.
“The idea for the table initially came from me stumbling upon a list of emerging technologies on Wikipedia. This felt fairly accurate, but also rather lifeless. It wasn’t especially contextual either. Other lists from MIT Tech Review and McKinsey were better, but somehow these weren’t showing the bigger picture either,” Watson wrote.
“Using all this as a good starting point I did some further research to identify candidate technologies and then spoke with Anna and academics at Imperial College to validate the thinking. This was the easy bit.”
“The tricky part was then deciding which technologies to leave out and how to rank both the disruptive potential of each technology and time (both near impossible, but we had a good go using small post-it notes that could be moved around easily). What results is far from perfect, but it’s better than anything else I’ve seen and it’s hopefully a foundation for people being wrong in really useful and interesting ways.”
Some disruptions are happening right now, while others are still incubating, waiting for the right moment to hatch. Watson highlighted the fact by dividing the nearly 100 technologies he listed into four groups. Colored in green are horizon 1 disruption — those that are happening right now, and which companies should waste no time jumping on board with. Yellow, or horizon two, are probable near-future technologies (10-20 years from now), which companies are advised to experiment with. Red, or horizon three, are technologies thought to emerge in the more distant future (20 years plus); companies should keep a close eye on their developments. Finally, the outer edge, colored in grey, are the so-called Ghost Technologies, fringe territory where you’ll find technologies that are highly improbable or downright impossible to mature with our current level of understanding.
Some items are super obvious and predictable, such as autonomous vehicles and smart energy grids, while other disruptions are extraordinarily outlandish or downright ludicrous — human head-transplants, telepathy, and artificial consciousness.
On the X-axis are technologies ranked by their potential for disruption in time, while the Y-axis ranks the probability of disruption from low to high. In this case, time relates to common usage, not initial invention.
So the next time you get your groceries delivered by an Amazon drone, don’t act too surprised. Revisit this table and prepare for the next big thing.
Watson has been kind enough to offer a high-res version of his table of disruption, which can download for free here.
The full list of technologies that the team looked at:
The list 100 disruptive technologies
Deep ocean wind farms
Wireless energy transfer
Concentrated solar power
Micro-scale ambient energy harvesting
Robotic care companions
Smart control of appliances
Delivery robots and passenger drones
Intention decoding algorithms
Computerised shoes and clothing
Airborne wind turbines (high altitude)
Metallic hydrogen energy storage
Autonomous ships and submarines
Water harvesting from air
Drone freight delivery
Autonomous passenger aircraft
3D-printing of food and pharmaceuticals
Smart flooring and carpets
Smart energy grids
Human organ printing
Artificial human blood substitute
Public mood monitoring machines
Peer-to-peer energy trading and transmission
Lifelong personal avatar assistants
Predictive gene-based healthcare
Automated knowledge discovery
Autonomous robotic surgery
Emotionally aware machines
Internet of DNA
Smart glasses and contact lenses
Broadcasting of electricity
4-dimensional materials (and printing)
New (Nano) materials
Low-cost space travel
Colonisation of another planet
Thought control machine interfaces
Dream reading and recording
e-tagging of new-borns
Male pregnancy and artificial wombs
DNA data storage
Quantum safe cryptography
Data uploading to the brain
Conversational machine interfaces
AI advisors and decision-making machines
AI board members and politicians
Digital footprint eraser
Personal digital shields
Human head transplants
Human cloning and de-extinction
Distributed autonomous corporations
Space solar power
Fully immersive VR
Whole Earth virtualisation
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