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Advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology have the potential to disrupt the rules of the game for every industry.

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Tomorrow’s World (2013) – A BBC Horizon Special

This article was first published on 16 April 2013.

The special received less than flattering reviews from one or two reviewers who took the view that it wasn’t entertaining enough, seemed disjointed and didn’t dig deeply enough into the technologies being covered.  In my view, those reviews miss the point and grossly misunderstand the value of programs like this in helping people become aware of, come to grips with and prepare for some of what’s likely to come our way in the not-too-distant future.

If your interest in the future and what it might mean for businesses and individuals is only relatively recent, then I would highly recommend you make the time to watch this program.  It’s a great way to get acquainted with some of the big things happening in the world of technological innovation and the people, institutions and companies at the vanguard of progress.  The fact that it raises more questions than it answers is the very reason why it’s so valuable.

If your interest in the future is well established, then I would still recommend it on the basis that it will reinforce much of what you’ve already uncovered on your journey of discovery.

If you’re an entrepreneur interested in disrupting the existing order of things then you’ll find the program inspiring and if you’re an industry incumbent with an open mind about the future of your industry you’ll find the program unsettling.

The pearls of wisdom aren’t necessarily pulled out in flashing lights, but the program is nonetheless littered with gems of insight for astute observers interested in taking a deeper, more inquisitive look at what’s happening around us and where it’s leading.

Takeaways from the program for me included:

  • A reinforcement of the trend towards the “democratisation” of innovation – something I’ve referred in previous posts.  Access to knowledge and the rapid decline in the costs of technical equipment are placing the tools of disruptive innovation, once the sole domain of governments and large, cashed-up corporations, into the hands of people all around the world.  As that happens, the pace and extent of disruptive innovation is increasing exponentially.
  • A reinforcement of the power of Moore’s Law to change the lay of the land very quickly.  The specific example in the program related to advances in biotechnology on the back of rapid reductions in both the size (at the micro scale) and cost of biotech materials.
  • A reinforcement of the folly that increasingly accompanies a position that something “can’t be done!”  Not only does it betray a dangerous closed-mindedness, it also provides a great source of inspiration for entrepreneurs and disruptors intent on doing the very thing that “can’t be done”
  • A reinforcement of the power of interdisciplinary thinking to solve problems or imagine new futures that remain unsolvable or unimaginable if confined to the thinking or perspective of a single discipline.  This isn’t necessarily about teams, although diverse teams are one way of generating this interdisciplinary perspective.  Interestingly, what defines a number of the inventors and entrepreneurs showcased in the program is the interdisciplinary perspective they bring as individuals to the challenges they are working on.
  • A reinforcement of my sense that while most of the world believes that people are, and should be, at the functional centre-point of all organisational activity, there are many at the leading edge of science, innovation and entrepreneurship who believe that the opposite is true.  I thought it telling that one of the inventors and entrepreneurs featured in the program said that the “first step is to remove humans from the equation”.  I see a myriad of problems potentially emerging from that approach but at the same time I absolutely understand the forces leading that entrepreneur to make that statement.  Either way, what interests me most is that this is increasingly the starting point being adopted by people looking to get things done in the future.  And it’s not just blue collar, manual labour that’s being impacted.  Increasingly knowledge workers and people in services industries are being and will be impacted as well.
  • Finally, a reinforcement of the importance of continually challenging the assumptions that underpin our view of our industry, our competitors, our business model etc.  A number of the developments covered in the program have the potential to radically change the fundamental economics of scarcity and value that underpin the business models of, and define competitors and industry boundaries for, so many companies.

These are just some of the things thrown up by the program for me.

So why bring this program to your attention?  Perhaps the single biggest challenge for organisations – whether they operate in the government, corporate or not-for-profit sectors – is the need for future relevance.  If you’re not relevant to tomorrow’s world then the game is over.  While there are always lessons from the past, you won’t find the secret to future relevance by looking in the rear-view mirror.  The only way to achieve it, other than dumb luck, is to have a heightened awareness of what’s happening around you, a view on where that creates vulnerability and opportunity and intent to be proactive in shaping your world rather than waiting for it to happen to you.

Watching programs like this, keeping an open and inquiring mind and being prepared to reflect and think deeply about the issues at hand is a starting point to achieving the kind of awareness about the future that I believe will ultimately be necessary for success in it.

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