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Quora Answer : What are the top 10 technology and management trends all CXOs need to be aware of?

May 18, 2012

Things that are going to be significant in the world in the next 10 years :

1) Desktop manufacturing. Not just the 3D printers which are the sexy part, but also the entire ecosystem of laser-cutters, CNC machines, MEMS, startups focussing on creating fablabs and hackspaces, tool libraries, online sharing of 3D models and designs. Open source design. "Design piracy." etc.

With this new generation of manufacturing technologies we are roughly where microcomputers were in the late 1970s. We should now see an explosion of small-scale, local, on-demand manufacturing capacity equivalent to the explosion in small-scale and personal computing capacity in the 1980s.

2) Retailers become Fabricators One thing I kind of expect, as a consequence of these new technologies is that the more forward looking online retailers (eg. Amazon) will start offering fabrication on-demand. Essentially these retailers will start competing with and squeezing out their own suppliers by cutting deals directly with industrial designers for new products that they can make at their warehouse, shortly before shipping to the customer. This is already apparent in Amazon's shifting relationship with publishers and authors. Amazon offer both print on demand books and "publishing" of Kindle eBooks. There's no reason the same can't be true next year for jewellery designers. And in five years time ... who knows what else?

From another angle, high street / main street shops may also find it makes sense to revert to making more things on the premises.

3) Unemployment There's a standard assumption that any technology destroys one lot of jobs and creates new ones. But this new manufacturing technology, is part of an accelerating tsunami of automation (including advances in robotics and practical applications of AI) which is outstripping our capacity to discover new jobs for people who are displaced by it. People in employment (including CxOs) are going to continue losing their jobs as companies continue to fragment and automate. This is also true in places like China where those hoping to climb the ladder from rural poverty to a factory job and the beginnings of a middle-class lifestyle will find their way increasingly blocked by cheaper, faster, tireless robots.

Unemployment will be an increasingly big social and economic problem. The question is whether the politicians are up to the challenge of finding a way forward.

4) Drones This may seem an esoteric issue. It isn't. Don't underestimate the significance of drones in the near future. In the next 5 years we'll be able to make sophisticated, autonomous flying machines for the same price as a smart-phone. (In fact, much of the technology will be the same.)

Thinking of the next generation of drones as flying iPhones puts things into perspective : high resolutions cameras? Check. GPS? Check. Speech recognition? Check. 4G connection to the internet - including access to maps and other off-board intelligence? Check. A market of thousands of developers writing "apps" which teach them new tricks? Most likely.

That has a lot of implications. Of course there's the Big Brother question of the government watching us. But there's also the question of "sousveillance" : of the rest of us watching each other. And there are potentially huge industrial espionage issues for the CxO. Most security planning is based on the idea of keeping human sized and shaped things off your premises. Not something with the size, shape and behaviour of a small bird that might be flying into your office carrying a camera, a pendrive or a bomb.

5) Crowdfunding Unquestionably, Kickstarter is a success. Both in terms of enabling people to raise money and enabling projects that couldn't have happened in other ways. And people continue to be keen to support projects. They might well get the taste for directly investing their money in other kinds of enterprise via such distributed mechanism rather than on the stock market or through funds. Already VC Fred Wilson has been discussing whether, say, the VC industry is particularly good at allocating money or good value for investors.

We may well find ourselves moving into a world where product making becomes more like the music business. "Hit products" are designed by individuals or small groups at home and prototyped in the local fab-lab. The first generation gets funded by a Kickstarter-like campaign and, if popular, the product gets "signed to a major label" ie. picked-up by Amazon or Walmart who manufacture it individually, or in small batches, as and when customers demand.

How does the traditional investment community engage with this world? What kind of businesses get built?

6) Co-working Small-scale personal technologies like PCs and laptops already allow the workforce to fragment into swarms of startups and freelance professionals. This technological trend will only continue. Smaller and more fluid organisations can't and won't get locked into long-term expensive office rental agreements with landlords, and so we'll see the continuation of the rise of co-working spaces ranging from work-friendly coffee-shops to desk-rentals to fab-labs and other shared workshops for technical freelancers.

I expect even established companies to start divesting themselves of their long-term contracts for office-space and exploring the use of dedicated co-working facilities. (And also home-working)

7) The War Against General Purpose Computing CoryDoctorow coined this term, and it's a good general umbrella for a number of related trends we'll see exacerbated in the next few years.

The poster-child here is Apple, which has successfully convinced people to swap their computers (over which they theoretically have full control) for iPads, ie. tethered devices, rented from the phone company, over which Apple has the final say as to what software you put on it. Seeing how successful this strategy has been for Apple, all the other major players want to be in on the game. Cloud computing is another example of this : computing increasingly sold not as an product but as a metered and (quality-) controlled service.

So while it seems that the technology is allowing us increasing freedom, we're also, individuals and companies, becoming increasingly dependent on and locked-in to a few network behemoths : Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, possibly Microsoft, possibly Samsung. These companies are going to have a hell of a lot of power. And I guess the CxO's strategy depends largely on where she or he is located with respect to them.

8) Climate Change and Peak Oil The propaganda campaign to persuade people to ignore global warming has been phenomenally and horrifyingly successful, to the extent that many people seem to have given up worrying. But, as Randall might put it, "Gaia don't care, she don't give a shit". (About what the Koch brothers want you to think.) The bad weather is already happening and it will continue getting worse. Expect more droughts, floods, migration, food price instability, and losses and price-rises in the insurance market.

We're not running in out of oil in the next 10 years. But, once again, expect increasing volatility of prices and more random acts of geopolitical aggression around the world as countries try to lock in their access to the remaining oil (and other resources that are running scarce). The US will likely try to exploit its native, difficult-to-get oil and gas. How the economics of that work out is a race between the high cost per barrel of the increasingly hard to access fuels vs. technological innovation in the machinery for extracting it. Advances and massive deployment of automation may keep the price of this oil down. But the environmental cost will still be high. (Hence more insurance claims.)

Actually, I think that's a general principle for the next decade : improvements in automation will compensate for the increasing energy costs. (Which is one more reason unemployment will stay high. Energy will be the constraint that stops the economy growing fast enough to absorb all those unemployed people. ) If, and only if, we're lucky will we make breakthroughs in solar / wind generation that can make them commercially viable within the context of extremely chaotic markets for energy. So the story of the next decade isn't a major makeover in terms of energy generation and transmission.

CxOs need to consider how their organisation can continue to survive and thrive in this world of climate instability and energy price volatility. They might look into the growing "Resilience" movements and ask both how their own operations can be made resilient and how they can contribute to the resilience and welfare of the communities they are located in.

9 and 10) When I think of them ... internet of things / ubicomp might be there.

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