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Creating the future through disruptive innovation

This article appears in the issue October 2014, [Vol 23 Issue 9]
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Over a decade ago, a group of us met to begin piecing together a framework for the enterprise of the future. Bill Halal, founder of TechCast LLC and now professor emeritus at The George Washington University, gave a presentation on his team’s assessment of future trends (see their latest forecast at techcastglobal.com). Two predictions stood out: Digital currencies would be in play by 2015, and space tourism would be firmly in place by 2020.

I recall several people whispering in my ear how preposterous that sounded to them. But if all goes as planned, Virgin Galactic will beat that forecast by five years as it begins launching passengers into space on a regular basis next year. And some of Virgin Galactic’s customers have reportedly paid their $200,000-plus fee using the digital currency bitcoin.

In the biotech sector, companies like Organovo are merging the natural with the artificial by synthetically producing living tissue for testing and ultimately for human organ replacement. Three-D printing, which has barely begun disrupting the manufacturing sector, has already worked its way into medicine and life itself.

Disruptive innovation is here in full force, with no sign of letting up. Let’s take a closer look at its effect on the industries we’ve just mentioned.

Space travel

From putting people into orbit and on the moon, from the shuttle to the Hubble telescope, NASA has been the leader in space for over half a century. Lately, many of its functions have been transitioning to the private sector. That’s not to say NASA still isn’t innovating. They’ve recently announced a conceptual design for a spaceship specifically intended to accommodate warp drive, should that capability ever arise (this is another technology being closely watched by TechCast). But in the next few years, with over two dozen private companies launching passengers and other payloads into space from nearly a dozen spaceports around the world, NASA will find itself focusing on fewer, smaller and more highly specialized missions.

Banking

For more than a century, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, along with other large central banks in Europe and Asia, have provided the bulk of the world’s monetary currencies. Suddenly, over a dozen private digital currencies have emerged, with bitcoin being the largest and most widely recognized. Virtually anyone can create a crypto currency, the success of which will depend on how much the market trusts its stability, privacy and safety, and its ability to keep regulators at bay. This one disruption alone will likely impact every industry on the planet.

Travel and hospitality

We’ve already seen the first wave of disruption as travel agencies and proprietary reservation systems have given way to online services like Priceline, Travelocity and Expedia. Now a huge second wave is underway.

Airbnb was started seven years ago by two unemployed roommates struggling to pay their rent. They dropped three air mattresses onto the floor of their living room and rented them out. The idea caught on and the company now boasts over half a million listings ranging from air mattresses in spare rooms to exotic villas all around the world. In the meantime, a European competitor called 9flats has emerged which, you guessed it, accepts payment in bitcoins.

Launched in 2010, Uber was built around a simple mobile app that connects ordinary car drivers with passengers, using GPS to minimize wait times. The company’s growth has skyrocketed, with a recent valuation of around $18 billion.

In each of those cases, resistance has been fierce. Flashbacks to the Luddite rebellion are on full display as European taxi drivers take to the streets in protest, demanding that Uber be shut down. But the genie is out of the bottle, and apps for renting everything from hand tools to yachts are hitting the market in droves.

Medicine

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, institutional medicine has not kept up with the pace of technology. Along with space tourism, medical tourism is a disrupter that allows people to bypass the labyrinth of delays and obstacles in their home country and receive treatment elsewhere. The more that mainstream medicine fails to keep its practices up-to-date and its customers satisfied, the more we’ll see healthcare versions of Uber and Airbnb popping up.

The common denominator in all of this is knowledge. More specifically, unclogging artificial barriers to a consumer’s ability to access timely, accurate and relevant information. And as the knowledge economy and digital economy converge, disruptive innovation will only accelerate.

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