A few weeks ago I attended the World Business Dialogue 2014 in Cologne, Germany where the organizers asked me to write an essay about how I see the world in 20 years from now for a book they published. Here it is.
The last 20 years in technology have been dominated by Moore’s Law: Intel’s cofounder Gordon E. Moore predicted in 1965 that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. In essence: Computers get twice as fast every two years.
Since the ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer built in 1946, we have seen the rise and (partial) displacement of four main computing paradigms: Starting with mainframes in the 1940s, which took up whole rooms full of computing equipment and were only used by very few select organizations. Those early highly specialized computers were replaced in the 60s by minicomputers, which for the first time brought access to computers into the realm of the average size corporation. Twenty years later the meteoric rise of personal computers led to the PC revolution - giving access to computers to large parts of society. With introduction of the the PC, machines also became more versatile. What was once purely a business tool soon became a platform for creation, consumption and communication. Shortly after the introduction of the PC the Internet connected all those disjunct machines into one global network which led to unprecedented opportunities: It allowed for communication, commerce and collaboration on a scale never experienced before. Today we are in the middle of the mobile revolution: PCs are increasingly being replaced by mobile phones and tablets. Small, personal computing devices which are always with us, always on and always connected.
All these cycles were fueled by Moore’s Law and the linear growth trend it predicted.
With the advent of new technologies in areas ranging from artificial intelligence & robotics to nanotechnology, biotechnology & bioinformatics, medicine & neuroscience, networks & computing systems and energy & environmental systems we see this model being replaced by the Law of Accelerating Returns: Growth is not linear anymore but exponential.
The shift toward exponential growth is probably the most fundamental we have seen as a species. Take the exponential growth of information: From the start of time until the year 2003 all of mankind produced an estimated five exabyte (five billion gigabytes) of information. The same amount of information is now created in about 10 minutes (that is to say - we create the same amount of information as we did in the last 5,000 years of our existence in a mere 10 minutes today). This shift coincides with other trends: Dematerialization, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, rapidly dropping costs for anything from genome sequencing to connected (smart) devices and cloud computing.
The next twenty years will see a host of new interventions - all delivered at a rapidly increasing pace: It took Apple and the rest of the industry a mere three years to introduce the tablet and then sell more of them than personal computers. Or take biotechnology: It took the Human Genome Project 15 years and $3 billion to fully sequence the first human genome in 2003; the same feat will be done this year for less than $1,000 and in just a couple of hours.
And given the problems we as a society are facing, we will require this kind of approach and thinking: The World Bank predicts that we need to create 600 million new jobs in the next twenty years to sustain our current employment rate. Global Warming (or probably more accurately Global Weirding) has a dramatic effect on the habitability of our planet. We will add another two billion people to the world’s population - which already suffers from a distinct lack of access to clean drinking water (one billion people today), relevant household income (three billion people live on less than $2.50 per day), electricity and medical support. Linear growth will just not get us there.
Exponential growth requires exponential thinking - As a species we are ill-equipped to process this seismic change. Humans tend to underestimate exponential trends and extrapolate growth trends in a linear fashion. And yet - those of us who can identify those opportunities and act upon them will be those who dominate the next wave of industries to come.
The new industries will be created by starting from a perspective of 10x improvements - not 10%. Surprisingly it is often easier to make something 10 times better than to improve it by a mere 10%: Because when you’re working to make things 10% better, you inevitably focus on the existing tools and assumptions, and on building on top of an existing solution that many people have already spent a lot of time thinking about. Such incremental progress is driven by extra effort, extra money, and extra resources. When you aim for a 10x gain, you lean instead on bravery and creativity - the kind that, literally and metaphorically, can put a man on the moon.
With that being said expect every single industry to be disrupted and digitized. Expect software and algorithms to further automate our value chains. Expect wetware (the protocols and molecular devices used in molecular biology and synthetic biology) to be the new hardware and DNA being the new software. And expect the business models which drive our growth to look significantly different than what we experience today.
We’ve long witnessed the death of traditional business hierarchies, cubicle farms and 9-to-5 jobs… Organizations which want to thrive in a world of exponential growth need to be nimble, quick, creative and not afraid of disrupting themselves. We will see many more small startups building significant audiences, outsourcing large parts of their value chain to specialized providers. Open innovation practices (where innovation comes both from inside and outside of the organization) will become the norm rather than the exception. Design thinking, the practice of combining deep empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context will be standard operating procedure for companies.
So what do you do with all this today? First of all: Guard yourself from linear thinking. When looking at an opportunity space try to identify what exponential growth will look like. Pick a big problem: something huge, long existing, or on a truly global scale. Articulate a radical solution - one which would actually solve the problem. Then figure out the concrete evidence that this solution is feasible, that it’s not just wild dreaming (this can often be found in some breakthrough in technology, engineering or science). Once you have all three ingredients together you get to work. And shape the next twenty years.