Global Trends 2020

Technology tipping points

Technological evolution is a certainty. Cyber-physical systems, Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) have been changing the infrastructure of our world. In the 2020s, these phenomena, which are still in their nascency, will rapidly accelerate due to the increasing digitisation of key areas such as health, science, transport, communications and energy. The ubiquity of technology, and its increased ability to connect and communicate, has paved the way for this tipping point. Beneath the surface, we are moving towards an explosion of change.

Over 50% of our global population is now online, and the other half is following fast. To be precise, around 726 million people joined the web in the last three years.39 These new users will change the shape of the internet. Many of them will be lower income. They are choosing smartphones over laptops and tablets and are more likely to use voice commands than people in the west; many may speak a language but not be able to read or write it.40

726 million people have joined the web in the last three years

Geodata and the IoT will create new markets and supply chains. Connectivity here has serious ramifications if you enable manufacturers to tap more directly into the rhythm of supply and demand. Through connected devices, supply chains will morph from local to global, powered by a well of data that surpasses human understanding.

The automation of manufacturing, services and mobility has already begun. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will reach what Gartner terms the ‘Plateau of Productivity’, in which the technology becomes both mainstream and viable.41 McKinsey estimates that 70% of companies may adopt at least one AI technology by 2030.42 It is unlikely they will all use it well, but those that do could manage to take us to a place where man and machine are indistinguishable.

Bioscience has the potential to be transformative in the 2020s. Gene editing (Crispr) technology will likely soon be able to edit genomes to allow animal organs to be accepted into human bodies – transforming, and perhaps saving, the lives of people currently waiting for organ transplants.43 Similar technology can also be used to combat inherited diseases, and even cancer. Elsewhere, gene therapy experiments are using the body’s immune system to fight cancer through re-engineering our cells.44

Technology has inarguably improved science, health, communications and transport. However, technology has not necessarily corresponded to increased economic productivity. Indeed, many of the most technologically advanced countries have seen productivity stagnate and stall, as discussed in growing inequality and opportunity.45 This is what is termed ‘consumer surplus’ – the value of new technology exceeds what a customer pays for it. Good technology does not equal good profit.

In the 2020s many questions around technology will be resolved. The scaffolding is in place. This will be the decade in which AI, geodata, the IoT, bioscience, and quantum computing are given the opportunity to change our world. Whether this change will be surface-level or truly transformative remains to be seen.

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