Predicting disruptive technologies

By Robert Hickson 27/06/2013

There’s a lot of intellectual as well as commercial interest in predicting what the next big technological developments will be. Last month McKinsey Global Institute published its list of  12 potentially economically disruptive technologies. This follows on the heels of Technology Review’s annual top 10 breakthrough technologies.

For followers of the future there is likely to be little that is surprising in these lists – robotics, 3D printing, genomics, renewable energy, big data, etc. But I’ve got respect for McKinsey’s approach because they lay out their methodology and rationale, and have involved a range of (hopefully) knowledgeable commentators. Their focus was on technologies that they believe will have:

significant potential to drive economic impact and disruption by 2025

To them a disruptive technology is one that dramatically changes the economic status quo. Their criteria were:

  • The technology is rapidly advancing or experiencing breakthroughs;
  • The potential scope of impact is broad;
  • Significant economic value could be affected; and
  • Economic impact is potentially disruptive.

Many of their disruptive dozen are ICT-related. Some are specific (autonomous vehicles), others vague (advanced materials). How they derived their estimates for the economic potential for each “technology” is opaque, and in my view the second weakest part. Their audience is the business world, and the purpose is to get business and company leaders to think about emerging technological opportunities and challenges.

McKinsey’s Techie Twelve are:

  • Mobile internet
  • Automation of knowledge work
  • Internet of things
  • Cloud technology
  • Advanced robotics
  • Autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles
  • Next-generation genomics
  • Energy storage
  • 3D printing
  • Advanced material
  • Advanced oil & gas exploration and recovery
  • Renewable energy

They also note five technologies that missed their final cut because they are unlikely to be technological feasible and deployable by 2025:

  • Next generation nuclear fission
  • Fusion power
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Advanced water purification
  • Quantum computing

The point of this post is not to pick apart their technological selections. Their weakest link is that they seem to look at the technologies largely in isolation from political and social factors. While they acknowledge that they aren’t predicting what will come to pass, very little mention is given to regulatory factors (beyond the need to preserve privacy, etc) or social factors that can support, impede and shape technological developments.

Overall it is a good report, and is likely to serve its main purpose well. They acknowledge some of the limitations in their analyses and assumptions. And recognise how some of the technologies could combine.

But, as a BBC programme on media futures illustrates (aired on Radio NZ National’s Nights programme on June 25th), “old technologies” are also still evolving and combining with new ones, particularly in less developed regions such as Africa.

As McKinsey previously highlighted nearly a decade ago, “innovation blowback” can be an under appreciated force.

Take home message: don’t just think about the new in a vacuum.