Technology is evolving so fast that spotting the Next Big Thing if you’re trying to decide where, when, and what to invest in can feel overwhelming.
Tracking more than 150 different technologies and using our own Emerging Tech Focus tool and method we identified those that are likely to make the biggest impact over the next five years or so. As part of that process, we took into account criteria including: the speed of tech take-up; the scale of public and private investment; the potential for the technology to go mainstream; its global reach; its technical viability; and its industry relevance across more than one sector.
Often used in combination, the ‘Essential Eight’ emerging technologies identified from our analysis reflect the development of increasingly autonomous, intelligent and connected devices, and the blurring of the physical and virtual world. Given their potential, we believe all organisations should begin to explore the potential of the Essential Eight, both as individual technologies and critically in combination. Given the pace of change, we are advising businesses to start to do this now.
AI is a set of software services that are taking machine ‘intelligence’ beyond the realm of beating the best human players at chess or Go, to solving real business problems. AI solutions exhibit the ability to: learn and store knowledge; undertake analysis; identify patterns and make recommendations; sense and interpret the external world; and interact using natural language. We believe AI will ultimately underpin how all businesses interact with each other and with their customers.
Examples we see around us include face recognition at passport control, financial fraud detection, virtual assistants on your smartphone or via devices in your home, messaging chatbots on social media, content recommendations for our video streaming services and increasingly driver support in vehicles.
Manufacturing firms have been using them on their assembly lines for many years, but robots are starting to enter the white-collar workplace, in both physical and virtual form. Humanoid robots are being trialed on cruise ships, care homes (in Japan) and at visitor attractions; software robots on the other hand could enter the workforce in more prosaic roles such as handling basic customer service queries in a UK local authority contact centre, to back-office process automation in a bank.
We’ve heard a lot recently about Amazon and Google using drones to deliver parcels, and although there are reasonable concerns around safety, especially in built-up areas, wider applications are being considered. In sectors such as construction or utilities, with large sites and assets to manage, equipping drones with pattern recognition technology to help identify locations that may require closer human inspection is just one potential application. Oil and gas firms have also exploited drone technology to check, for example, remote pipeline networks. This reduces the need for engineers to manually check these locations and can increase the frequency of checking.
Fully immersive and increasingly realistic, VR’s most obvious applications are in entertainment and gaming (and some sports at the Rio Olympics were already broadcast in VR), but advances in technology have increased accessibility while reducing development costs are starting to open up huge possibilities in fields as diverse as retail, healthcare, education, tourism, and journalism.
Initially seen as something of a curiosity, AR devices overlay information, graphics or audio content to the user’s experience of their real-world environment, with sometimes dramatic impact. The recent Pokémon Go phenomenon drew attention to AR but it has many applications beyond social gaming. Aircraft manufacturers, with hugely complex engineering projects are already piloting AR to help achieve increases in manufacturing accuracy, productivity and control. It can also enable trainees to get “virtually hands-on” with complex moving equipment that would otherwise dangerous or inaccessible.
This technology has already made a name for itself as the technology behind the virtual currency, Bitcoin, but its significance goes beyond virtual currencies to traditional financial services and beyond. Offering unprecedented levels of accuracy, traceability, reliability and security to any number of transactions and interactions, Blockchain offers the potential to cut costs too. The proof? The UK government is actively considering how it might be used in areas as diverse as national identity schemes and healthcare. Some large financial institutions are also relying on blockchain for internal transactions between territories, effectively reducing the internal cost of moving money.
While there is huge potential to link consumer appliances and devices to the web, the industrial internet of things offers even bigger potential for business: there could be several billion connected consumer devices in the next five years, but the equivalent number for industrial machines will be in the hundreds of billions. Connecting physical assets to digital networks is generating vast amounts of data, enabling the potential for unprecedented levels of insight, prediction and real-time control over production processes.The ability to track, measure and monitor in real-time also opens up new business models allowing for companies to offer almost “anything as a service”.
Established as a useful tool for prototyping, 3D printing offers an additive rather than reductive complement to mainstream manufacturing. It has been successfully used to support the manufacture of certain precision components and in some cases develop finished products, for example hearing aids and dental braces. It has also been used internally within organisations to assist with design visualization. For example, a consumer goods firm can test a new packaging design in multiple locations. Challenges remain around printing methods, the software for product design, and whether different materials can be combined for use in printing more complex organic and metallic and combined components.
The technologies driving each of the 8 developments may be different, but they are increasingly being used in combination to do even more to save money and time, reduce errors, speed up processes, and – in several cases – replace or augment human abilities. We believe that if designed well, many of these technologies will increase quality, reduce cost and ultimately drive up productivity (as almost every technology has before). They are unlikely to replace human ingenuity and imagination and used intelligently, they will free up time and space for people to do what they do best
So with all that in mind, what do you need to do?
First ask yourself some tough questions about whether your innovation strategy and process is really good enough. We’ve found that many companies don’t have an emerging technologies strategy at all, and aren’t monitoring them as a result. You need to work out what you want to achieve, and where responsibility for this lies. Ask yourself: if you were designing a new business to compete with what you do now and you had access to all these technologies, what would your business look like? How far away are you from that today?
Secondly, look at the ‘essential eight’ and work out what the impact could be on your sector, your value chain and your overall business. Where might your business feel an impact? Have you quantified this impact? If so, what products or services might be developed as new revenue streams, or become obsolete? Where’s the funding coming from to do this?
Thirdly, turn all that into a plan of action, with a road map, milestones, and monitoring. Remember, there could be real quantifiable value in being first to market or a fast follower, and the most successful companies shape their future by creating the change they want to see and encouraging innovative thinking.
As a final thought, in recent discussion with an organisation, it was interesting to reflect that we determined that an entirely new business could be created using a combination of the “Essential Eight” with less investment than one quarter of the existing IT maintenance budget, and launched to market in less than a year.
That’s why your innovation strategy should be a reoccurring item on your board’s agenda.
This is a summary of our Tech breakthrough megatrend report, read the full report.