Is technological disruption coming? Does it provide opportunities or threats?

I see disruptive opportunities everywhere. I also see disruptive threats everywhere. In fact I give talks about disruptive technologies, to academics and students, and to CEOs of SMEs. The message is: the future is coming and the future is disruptive. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be more disruptive than any previous period of change; more disruptive, more rapid and more pervasive.

For businesses, there is a binary choice. Disrupt or be disrupted. I then gently suggest that to disrupt might be the better choice! In most cases, their business is not going to be disrupted immediately, but they need to start thinking about it now, and start planning in the near future. The type of disruption they experience will depend on their business sector and their business model; there is no one-size-fits-all problem or solution.

At colleges and universities, the message is slightly different. The academics are told that they must find out as much as they can about future technologies, about how they might play out, about the possible impact they might have; they need to inform their students’ career choices. The students are told how their career experiences are likely to differ from those of their parents, which in most cases means that any information and advice they receive is likely to be misinformed or just plain wrong. Ditto from their professors and their peer group. Portfolio careers and lifelong learning are just the start. Significantly the majority of future job and career opportunities do not yet exist. We can identify some and guess at others. Yet others, we cannot even imagine.

There are many different so called disruptive technologies, with different potential impacts, although many if not most are underpinned by several key technological changes, including artificial intelligence (AI) aka machine learning, cloud and mobile computing. There are also massive societal changes which are both driving and affected by these changes. These include online learning, remote medical analysis & support and so on.

In theory, the vast majority of people across the planet have the opportunity to join the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and many choose to do so. Funnily enough, given the same educational opportunities as people in the developed world, those in the third world turn out to be just as intelligent, just as innovative, just as technologically able, and often much more driven, as they strive to improve their lot.

I remember, not that long ago, here in the UK we were surprised at how quickly the Chinese economy was growing, and how good the Chinese were proving to be at quality manufacturing. “But let’s not worry”, we reassured ourselves, “because they will never be as creative as we are”. What misplaced arrogance.

So what about disruptive technologies, to get back to the topic? I do not intend to give a complete list of disruptive technologies, because this is not going to be a complete book on the subject. But think about apps, drones, 3D printing, robots, genomics, synthetic chemistry, autonomous vehicles and many many more. And think about the fact that they do not generally operate independently but overlap and reinforce one another.

A key word is digital. Not so long ago, some companies were described as “digital”, implying that others weren’t. That split no longer exists. Most businesses are now digital in one way or another. So if you want to know how to disrupt a technology, a way of life or an industry, look at different businesses, at different activities, at ways the world works, and ask yourself: “How could this be done differently?” You may not even need a new technology, just a good idea and a good business model. It will almost certainly involve a digital aspect, but digital is a broad church.

Finally, think about the big challenges which we face, such as climate, water, mobility, health, aging, pollution and so on. These all provide huge opportunities for change, for improvement. I myself am involved in businesses which address some aspect of most of these, and typically there is some disruptive technology involved.

Ultimately, I believe that technology and technological change should always aim to be a force for good, for the betterment of the world and of society. Not everyone sees it that way, and for some, profit comes first. And second. So technological change and disruptive technology cannot be left to the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the technologists. Nor to the politicians. Above all, not just to the politicians. We all have a part to play, and we must make our voices heard and wishes known. We must warn our children to play their part. If we don’t, we will get the world we deserve rather than the world we need or desire.

Martin Stevens CEO IT IS 3D Ltd