Fast Company

How to Profit From the Future

What are the key drivers of change for the foreseeable future? Here is a quick tour of five forces that I believe have the potential to change the world as we know it over the next few decades. They could be used as a framework for innovation and should provide fertile ground for future inventors and entrepreneurs.

1. Demographic change

Not only is the world becoming more crowded, it is also a world where some people are living for much longer, more people are living on their own and less people are being born in some regions. All these demographic trends have profound consequences.

Population growth has significant implications in terms of infrastructure and natural resources. The global population goes into freefall in about 2050, but until then (and unless something dramatic happens in Asia) I'd expect demand for just about everything to rise unless science comes to the rescue.

The most significant demographic shift is ageing. Ageing has implications for everything from health care and pensions to voting blocks and retail formats.

Of course, organizations tend to be run by younger people, so traditionally this segment of the population (65+) has been neglected. Declining fertility rates will have an impact in terms of skills shortages but they could also potentially have negative impacts on everything from innovation to risk due to inherent conservatism.

Medicine, especially remote diagnosis and monitoring
Home delivery services and domestic outsourcing
Insurance & financial services for the over-65s (all the way up to 85+)
Sheltered housing and group travel
Memory recovery and aids against forgetting
Transport (cars and mobility for just one)
Pets (people don't like to be alone)

2. Global connectivity

Thanks to new technologies, especially digitalisation, the world is becoming more connected. There are now over 4 billion cell-phones in the world and sometime in 2012 the number of smart-phones sold per year will exceed the number of PCs.This means that we will increasingly create, filter, transmit and receive information in real time. This is impacting how people think, how people work and how people play.

For example, knowing where people and things are all the time opens up new opportunities for location-based services. It also means that traditional barriers (i.e. barriers between content creators and content consumers) are crumbling and that many of the things that were once done in one place (e.g. reading x-rays or editing movies) are now done in others.

However, there is an argument that we are now becoming too connected. We are over-sharing information about ourselves and we are being deluged by data to the point where our concentration is being fragmented and we are opening ourselves up to digital theft and worse. If the entire world is connected (e.g. computers controlling roads, hospitals, financial markets, ATMs etc) the entire world is as vulnerable as the weakest link.

Real-time pricing of risk (e.g. pay-as-you-go auto insurance)
Outsourcing of services to low-cost providers
Location-based products & services
Predictive sales & marketing
Digital and micro-payments
e-records (e.g. health)

3. Emerging technologies

If you want an idea of what the world might look like in 10 years time try a simple thought experiment. Pretend that you fell asleep in the year 2000 and woke up this morning. What would be different? My list would include 9/11, the GFC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Youtube, Twitter, Web 2.0, Facebook, cloud computing and gesture based computing.

Over the past couple of decades we've also developed smart spell check, automated taxi booking using speech recognition, biometric identity, domestic robots, home DNA testing kits, brain-to-machine computer interfaces and robots in caring roles.

In short, we are on the edge of a new era where smart and green automation and intelligence will reshape the world. You think I'm kidding? Think what the automobile, concrete and steel did to re-shape our cities. So why wouldn't smart, emotionally aware machines and new nano-materials do the same?

Bio mechatronics (mating robotics to the human nerve system)
Quantum wires (wires spun from carbon nanotubes to carry electricity)
Silicon photonics (using light to speed up data flow)
Nano-electronics (ultra-dense data storage)
Mobile security (against viruses).
Batteries/fuel cells

4. Power Shift Eastwards

The fourth force shaping the future is the shift of money, power, influence and ideas Eastwards from the U.S. and NW Europe into the Middle East and Asia. For example, according to Goldman Sachs, 2 billion more people will achieve middle-class living standards (defined by an annual income of $6,000 to $30,000) by the year 2050. This means shifting consumption patterns and more competition for key resources such as oil and water but also lithium and coffee.

But it's not necessarily the number of people or even how much money they've got relative to the West that's most interesting. Many people in the West have always assumed that 'they' will eventually become like 'us'. In other words, people in developing nations will adopt broadly Western attitudes and behaviours. That they will favour liberalisation, free speech and democracy. Well what if they don't? Early indications are that the new middle classes favour protectionism alongside globalisation and support authoritarian governments and restrictions on free speech just so long as their economies keep growing.

New sources of demand
Rising price (and price volatility) of commodities
Increased levels of Asian and Eastern investment in US/Europe
Re-sourcing of outsourced services
Asian tourism (Asian and Eastern tourists to the US/Europe)
Export of US/European education
Medical tourism

5. Environmental change

If demographic changes are the most certain of all the five forces I'd say that environmental change is the least certain. Thanks to concerns relating to climate change and anxieties relating to resource shortages green and environmental issues are no longer fringe thinking but much of the thinking about what will happen next is clearly speculative. Nevertheless, this hasn't prevented governments from changing policy and creating green regulation and taxation.

Indeed, the only thing I'd say will anything approaching confidence is that where the bar is set currently in terms of regulation or compliance is not where it will stay. I'd expect the bar to be raised in the future and companies will need zero impact or offset strategies for everything from new products through to supply chains.

Materials reduction/reuse schemes & markets
Domestic energy dashboards
Green/sustainable retail
Green/clean energy
Green transport
Green IT

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