When Technologies Combine, Amazing Innovation Happens

The Institute for the Future looks at what happens when technologies intersect.


Innovation occurs both within fields, and in combinations of fields. It’s perhaps the latter that ends up being most groundbreaking. When people of disparate expertise, mindset and ideas work together, new possibilities pop up.


In a new report, the Institute for the Future argues that “technological change is increasingly driven by the combination and recombination of foundational elements.” So, when we think about the future, we need to consider not just fundamental advances (say, in computing, materials, bioscience) but also at the intersection of these technologies.

The report uses combination-analysis in the form of a map. IFTF selects 13 “territories”–what it calls “frontiers of innovation”–and then examines the linkages and overlaps. The result is 20 “combinational forecasts.” “These are the big stories, hot spots that will shape the landscape of technology in the coming decade,” the report explains. “Each combinatorial forecast emerges from the intersection of multiple territories.”

We picked out a few forecasts that caught our eye.

Bugs not drugs

Research into the microbiome–a collective term for microorganisms running around our bodies–will open new opportunities for dealing with harmful bacteria. Instead of simply prescribing antibiotic drugs, we might in the future try to cultivate beneficial microorganisms. “New approaches to staying healthy will be based on balancing the ecologies of microorganisms,” the report says. “This new understanding will likely lead to a new wave of probiotic products and perhaps even to seeding babies’ guts with microbial life.” Research into fecal transplants, as a response to chronic C. difficile infections, is an early example of this.

Quantified Experiences

Advances in brain-imaging techniques will make bring new transparency to our thoughts and feelings. “Assigning precise measurements to feelings like pain through neurofeedback and other techniques could allow for comparison, modulation, and manipulation of these feelings,” the report says. “Direct measurement of our once-private thoughts and feelings can help us understand other people’s experience but will also present challenges regarding privacy and definition of norms.”

Uniting Man And Man-Made

As we learn to harness biology for our manufacturing purposes, the distinction between man and machine will fade. “New biology-based processes will do things that only machines have previously done. For example, scientists have recently been able to modify cells to act like fully functional computers,” the report says. Similarly, bioengineering will allow us to replicate nature, as with lab-grown meat and organs.


Your Perspective Is My Perspective

Walking in someone else’s moccasins will be easier with devices like Oculus Rift, which already lets gamers experience the world from a child’s perspective. “While offering the possibility of amplifying compassion, this new technology also raises privacy issues and creates nearly endless marketing and customization opportunities for enterprises,” the report says.

Code Is The Law

The law enforcement of the future may increasingly rely on sensors and programmable devices. “Governance is shifting from reliance on individual responsibility and human policing toward a system of embedded protocols and automatic rule enforcement,” the report says. That in turn means greater power for programmers who are effectively laying down the parameters of the new relationship between government and governed.

Bot Wars

Today’s battles between automated financial trading systems are a forerunner of battles in other areas. “Once these bots are empowered to act upon and adjust our increasingly critical connected systems, such as global markets, smart cities, and social networks, competing programs could create chaos,” the report says. “Competing algorithms could thwart our ultimate goal of fine-tuning systems to avoid potential problems.”

IFTF points out these are only its forecasts. The tool is open to anyone to play around with.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.