Week 7: Anticipating disruption

There are, of course, many reasons to engage in technological foresight including firms seeking competitive intelligence, countries looking to improve their international competitiveness or research agencies looking to invest in the most promising technologies of the future.  One of the obvious reasons to consider employing any of the various foresight mechanisms is to anticipate and prepare for the potential of disruption.  The disruption can affect existing business models, trading arrangements, or socio-political structures.

More fundamentally, ‘disruption’ should actually disrupt, not just offer evolutionary change.  Simply saying that ‘robotics’ will ‘transform’ society by 2040 or 2050 is not necessarily disruptive (indeed, one can date concerns over robots to Isaac Asimov’s Law of Robotics from 1942, when the first robots were being developed).  Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers transformed the industry and disrupted business models, but these hardly posed existential threats.  The real question is whether the speed by which robotics (or AI, etc) penetrate will change the nature of work and disrupt wider society.  Society has, of course, been affected by decades of automation, many jobs have been lost and firms like Toyota have redefined the industry, but this has happened over many decades and I would hesitate to describe these changes as truly disruptive (although I am happy to be persuaded otherwise!)

  1. Looking out over, say, the next 20 to 30 years, do you foresee any truly disruptive technologies? In what sense will they act to disrupt firms, markets, governments, and societies?
  2. What role can foresight and similar methods play in anticipating and preparing us for disruption?
  3. Are there are technologies that you perceive as posing truly existential threats?

If we wanted to look at how well we do at predicting the future, consider this 1966 BBC Panorama programme on ‘California 2000’, which attempted to anticipate the impacts of technology on the future of work.  We are now about as far from 2050 as they were from 2000 in 1966.  For similar good value, you might also want to check out the archive from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World from that same period (including great episodes on laser eye surgery, home computing and mobile phones long before any of these became publicly available).