The parade of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs is relentless and is unfolding on many fronts.
Almost any advance is billed as a breakthrough, and the list of “next big things” grows ever longer. Yet some technologies do in fact have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, rearrange value pools, and lead to entirely new products and services.
Business leaders can’t wait until evolving technologies are having these effects to determine which developments are truly big things. They need to understand how the competitive advantages on which they have based strategy might erode or be enhanced a decade from now by emerging technologies—how technologies might bring them new customers or force them to defend their existing bases or inspire them to invent new strategies.
Policy makers and societies need to prepare for future technology, too. To do this well, they will need a clear understanding of how technology might shape the global economy and society over the coming decade. They will need to decide how to invest in new forms of education and infrastructure, and figure out how disruptive economic change will affect comparative advantages. Governments will need to create an environment in which citizens can continue to prosper, even as emerging technologies disrupt their lives. Lawmakers and regulators will be challenged to learn how to manage new biological capabilities and protect the rights and privacy of citizens.
Many forces can bring about large-scale changes in economies and societies— demographic shifts, labor force expansion, urbanization, or new patterns in capital formation, for example. But since the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, technology has had a unique role in powering growth and transforming economies.
Technology represents new ways of doing things, and, once mastered, creates lasting change, which businesses and cultures do not “unlearn.” Adopted technology becomes embodied in capital, whether physical or human, and it allows economies to create more value with less input. At the same time, technology often disrupts, supplanting older ways of doing things and rendering old skills and organizational approaches irrelevant.