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Which new technology will disrupt your life next?

Nov 17, 2013 Sunday Nation

Early in 2010, I wrote here that the future of your business might well lie in the palm of your hand. I was referring, of course, to the unstoppable rise of mobile computing. Since then, the smart, mobile, connected device is in more than a billion hands globally – and is expected to be in three billion by 2025. That computer in so many pockets – more powerful than most of the ‘supercomputers’ of the 1960s and 1970s – has transformed industry after industry, from photography to publishing to entertainment.

But that’s only the beginning. The device now looks set to revolutionise retail banking, insurance, payments, medicine, education and many more sectors. And in this part of the world, the fact that M-Shwari has become the country’s second-largest bank in just a few months should make everyone sit up and take notice.

Now that you’re paying attention, here’s more news. Mobile computing is just one of many technologies that look set to disrupt and transform the way we live and do business. Consultants McKinsey recently identified a whole swathe of emerging technologies that may have wide-ranging economic impact.

Take robotics. Robots are becoming more dexterous, and more able to sense situations and make decisions. What impact will that have on a whole range of manufacturing and assembly-line jobs, and on cleaning and servicing?

What about autonomous vehicles? You should be watching the success (and controversy) of drone aircraft with considerable interest. They are more effective than we imagined. Why is Google spending so much money developing self-drive cars? Think about machine vision, sensors, actuators and artificial intelligence; connect those dots, and you may see how much change might happen once regulators catch up and allow their usage on real roads. What impact then on the motor industry, and on traffic and road accidents?

Move on rapidly to large-scale energy storage, similar to the Lithium-ion batteries that power your smartphone: if that hits scale, what happens to mass power supply? Or 3D printing, which might bring self-designed light manufacturing into the home? What about advancements in materials science, which may soon create self-repairing or self-cleaning metals?

Does this all sound like science fiction? So did the idea that photography would become entirely digital, or that most human knowledge could be carried around in a pocket. Until it happened. Unlike with mobile computing, I can’t predict far-reaching impacts of these technologies with any certainty; but I do know I’d be a fool to ignore them.

The point about disruptive technology is this: there are always winners and losers. “Creative destruction” throws up new businesses and models – and throws out old ones. Today, newspapers are caught in exactly that battle: of embracing spontaneity and real-time reporting, whilst frantically protecting the best values of traditional journalism.

If you are thinking about your career, or those of your children, these technologies provide food for thought. The key beneficiaries of these gales of change are often the owners of new or adaptive businesses, who can do more for less; and consumers, who get more for less. Employees and professionals, on the other hand, have much to ponder.

In this country we still fight to protect jobs like ditch-digging, tea-picking and cart-pulling. The actual range of jobs at risk is far, far wider. The nature of work and workplaces may be about to be turned upside down, and it is time business leaders woke up to the potential impacts. Equally, policymakers need to pay a lot of attention to new skills sets and regulation of the new technologies in the economy.

And finally, parents have a great deal to think about. Raising your children to do repetitive, inefficient, mindless work is more dicey than ever before. The future lies with creatives, innovators, designers, orchestrators, artists and risk-takers.

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