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In the first-ever report of its kind, futurists and analysts at the DC-based research and consulting firm Social Technologies released a series of 12 briefs this month that shed light on the top areas for technology innovation through 2025.
"Technologies can advance so rapidly and so randomly that they are virtually impossible to predict," says Denise Chiavetta, leader of Social Technologies' Technology Foresight project. "Consumers may feel on occasion that they are the victims of runaway technology changes."
On the other hand, new products created from new technologies often require as many as 10 years to reach consumers, even in the developed world—let alone the long periods of time required for global market penetration, she adds.
"Experience has shown that future products and services can be anticipated generally if not specifically by knowing the vectors of technology advances, government and corporate priorities, the major thrust areas of R&D, and long-term customer values."
So earlier this year, Chiavetta and her team of researchers at Social Technologies conducted a virtual focus group of experts in technology, innovation, and business strategy located around the world. The group included experts from the Association of Professional Futurists, Tekes, Duke University, Hasbro, Worldwatch, General Motors, Shell, Johnson Controls, and Oxford University, among others.
Their judgments were then consolidated into a list of top 12 areas for innovation, which follow.
THE TOP 12 AREAS FOR TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION BY 2025
1. Personalized medicine—With the initial mapping of the human genome, scientists are moving rapidly toward the following likely breakthroughs for gene-based products and services:
• creation of an individual's genome map for a retail price of less than $1,000
• correlation of specific genes and proteins with specific cancers, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and diabetes, which will allow both physicians and patients to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate, if not cure, DNA-based health challenges
• development of pharmaceuticals that treat gene-based diseases, replacing surgeries and chemotherapy
2. Distributed energy (DE)—The evolution of distributed energy will reflect that of computing: just as computing has migrated from the 20th century's centralized model (powerful mainframes delivering applications to remote workstations) to today's decentralized model (PCs and networks), so energy generation and delivery will move from central sources to DE, increasingly featuring local generators that can be linked when needed for greater output. Specific innovations will include:
• advanced electric storage devices and batteries at all scales
• new power systems with source-switching flexibility
• new energy management systems
3. Pervasive computing—Almost every device or object in consumers' lives will be both smart and networked, giving rise to an "Internet of things." Pervasive computing will drive the convergence of computing, Internet access, voice communications, and television—ultimately blurring categories of infotech products and services. Specific breakthroughs will include:
• very simple and inexpensive computing devices with integrated wireless telephone and Internet capabilities (the worldwide $100 computer)
• the "semantic Web," enabled by Web data that automatically self-organizes based on its content, allowing search tools or software agents to identify the actual relevance of Web pages—not just find keywords on them
• intelligent interfaces, in some cases enabled by virtual reality
4. Nanomaterials—Although nanotechnologies have received much attention, the R&D is progressing very slowly. But the experts expect major breakthroughs within the next two decades, including inexpensive ways to produce mass quantities of nanomaterials. In addition, the function of nanomaterials will move from "passive" to "active" with the integration of nanoscale valves, switches, pumps, motors, and other components.
5. Biomarkers for health—While DNA-based diagnoses and cures have long been under the spotlight, this category of breakthroughs stresses prevention. Consumers today believe their lifestyle choices have long-term consequences for health, and at the same time they are becoming more knowledgeable about the life sciences. They want to be able to monitor their vital signs, broadly defined, in ways that are as affordable, easy to use, and private as home scales for monitoring weight. Potential breakthroughs here include:
• individualized, private, and self-administered diagnostics for multiple physical parameters such as blood sugar, urine, C-reactive proteins, HDL, and LDL, as well as home diagnostic kits that detect early signs of diabetes, heart disease, and types of cancers
• personalized exercise equipment and regimens that deliver customized benefits (for weight control, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.)
• advanced CAT scans, MRIs, and brain scans to identify disorders earlier and more accurately at less cost
6. Biofuels—The expert panel felt strongly that significant further advances will be made in renewable biomass fuels, allowing them to supplement and eventually replace gasoline and diesel. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be key to the development of biofuels. Anticipated breakthroughs include:
• high-energy (as measured in British thermal units, or Btu) blends of gasoline and diesel with biofuels (beyond the ethanol blends known today)
• biomass production of a methanol that can be used as a fuel for fuel cells
• new discoveries in plant genetics and biotechnologies specifically for energy content
7. Advanced manufacturing—The long-term trend continues to favor "mass customization," or the ability to produce low quantities of specific products in a profitable and high-quality way. Such processes may apply not just to factory manufacturing, but to many applications—potentially ranging from desktop publishing to specialty foods production. The experts anticipated the following breakthroughs by 2025:
• advanced computer-aided design and control
• multiple variable and inexpensive sensors linked with computers
• expert systems and advanced pattern-recognition software for very tight quality control
8. Universal water—Water is becoming increasingly scarce. Less than 2% of the planet's ample store of water is fresh, and much of that is threatened by pollution. The future of universal water is simple: use less; keep the available freshwater clean; and make more freshwater from saltwater to offset critical shortfalls. Enabling technologies will include:
• ultra-fine filters (probably from nanotechnology)
• new energy sources for desalination and purification, including hybrid systems that combine conventional and alternative power—especially solar power
• smart water-use technologies for agriculture and industry
9. Carbon management—Discussions about mitigating climate change have focused on controlling greenhouse gases, yet methane and carbon dioxide, to name two principal greenhouse gases, are presently more difficult to measure and control than previous air pollutants. The expert panel, however, anticipates that technologies currently in R&D will prove to be effective for these gases—and that this area of work will be extremely important to consumers of all types:
• effective "measure, monitor, and verify" systems
• affordable and effective carbon capture and storage technologies and systems for coal-burning power plants
• low to zero emission controls for transportation
10. Engineered agriculture—This area of DNA-based R&D is closely related to innovations in personalized medicine and biofuels, but with applications in agriculture and nutrition. Potential breakthroughs include:
• identification of specific genomes for desired growing and use qualities
• crop-produced pharmaceuticals and chemical feedstocks
• crops designed specifically for energy content and conversion
11. Security and tracking—Although the experts gave less weight to breakthroughs for national security and counterterrorism than to those for consumer products and services (probably a result of how the topic question was framed), they envisioned a continued need for personal safety and security systems, above and beyond those of governments. Examples of potential breakthroughs in the personal-security realm include:
• completely autonomous security-camera systems with algorithms able to correctly interpret and identify all manner of human behavior
• multiple integrated sensors (including remote sensing)
• radio frequency (RF) tags for people and valuables
12. Advanced transportation—In addition to the consideration of energy sources for private transportation, the experts identified potentially significant breakthroughs in the management of private transportation, as well as advances in public transportation. These include:
• organized and coordinated personal transportation through wireless computer networks, information systems, and Internet access
• onboard sensors and computers for smart vehicles
• advanced high-speed rail
Trends, drivers, and challenges ahead
How fast will these breakthroughs spread to consumers around the world? "That depends on social, economic, and regulatory factors," Chiavetta says.
Drivers include the growing global population and resulting pressures on energy and natural resources, urbanization, aging populations which require more resources from both government and society—in particular, baby boomer demands for longevity and good health—and advances in information and communications technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.
"Although the experts were generally optimistic about the future, one has to recognize also that there may be barriers and frustrations ahead that will compromise these breakthroughs," Chiavetta cautions.
Specifically, she points to a technical inability to advance much further in DNA research and the development of commercially viable life-sciences products and services, due to both inadequate resources and the inherent complexity of these fields. "Other challenges could be a significant global economic downturn, and the possibility that global warming will prove to be a bigger problem than perceived in 2007."
News releases on each of the top 12 areas for technology innovation will be available in the coming months. To further discuss these technology trends, set up an interview with futurist Denise Chiavetta by sending an email to Hope Gibbs ( ).
About ) Technology Foresight
The series cited above is part of Social Technologies' Technology Foresight project, the science and technology section of the company's Futures Consortium program—a multiclient strategic information service that identifies and examines important emerging shifts in science and technology, and analyzes the business implications of these changes. For more information, visit http://www.socialtechnologies.com/FuturesConsortium.aspx .
About Social Technologies
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world’s leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making.
Denise Chiavetta ) Futurist / Leader, Technology Foresight
Denise Chiavetta is the leader of Social Technologies’ Technology Foresight project, a multiclient strategic information service that identifies and examines emerging shifts in science and technology and analyzes the business implications of these changes. Previously the head of Future Technologies at The Coca-Cola Company, Denise has a BS in electrical engineering from Clarkson University and an MS in studies of the future from the University of Houston–Clear Lake. Areas of expertise: Energy (green, renewable, oil), environment and sustainability, food and beverage, health and medicine, future of technology.
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