THE BLOG

2025: Technology Will Be the Digital Fuel Powering Up Our Citizens and Cities

05/12/2015 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Emerging technology has the power to transform our world over the next decade. The revolution has already started, with individuals increasingly using intelligent, intuitive tools to better communicate, create and collaborate. It will gather pace as concepts such as machine learning empower businesses, cities and whole regions to harness growing amounts of data and computing power, improving our lives and unlocking new economic opportunities. However, most people will not see the revolution coming - it will be largely invisible. Innovation will come from an ecosystem of pervasive computing so natural and all-encompassing that it disappears into the background.

Let's start with individuals. We're already being empowered to achieve more with technology. Mobile devices have given us greater freedom and flexibility than ever before, while social platforms help us collaborate more effectively. But more advances are forthcoming. Although in its early stages, technology exists that can empower the visually impaired to navigate cities with greater confidence by establishing a 3D soundscape using their mobile device, an app and a bone-density headset. Over the next decade, services like this will emerge, enabling more of us to lead richer lives.

The businesses we work in will become similarly empowered by technology. The Cloud is a vital platform that will underpin the future digital economy. According to the Boston Consulting Group, small businesses in emerging markets that have moved to the cloud see 15 percent faster revenue growth than technology laggards, and expand headcount twice as fast. The cloud removes the barriers to entry associated with traditional IT investments - meaning even the smallest companies can benefit from enterprise-class services. It also ensures that companies can scale quickly, flexing to meet demand while paying only for what they need. Looking ahead, we need to continue to improve performance of the cloud, of data centers, of our array of computing devices. Computing power and data storage will need to scale as they've never scaled before--faster and more efficiently. As a result, we'll see the emergence of programmable hardware to complement programmable software.

These new businesses will need to communicate more effectively with partners and customers as they expand beyond their borders. As it stands, research from the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests that language barriers and cultural misunderstandings hamper international business deals. Real-time translation tools will help to break down these barriers, opening doors to valuable new commercial opportunities for everyone, wherever they are. And in so doing, we will be in a better position to preserve the cultural heritage and language of nations, rather than forcing them to conform and use the same language. While globalization will make the world smaller and more accessible, we must continue to appreciate its vibrant diversity.

Our cities, too, will get smarter. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), urban populations are expected to increase from less than one billion in 1950 to roughly six billion by 2050. With population density soaring, local governments will increasingly look for ways to deliver quality services to their citizens in an efficient, cost-effective way. Technology will be fundamental to implementing this successfully across public infrastructure and services.

To take one example, a vital element of any flourishing, economically successful city is its transport network. We have the ability to transform the way people get around through exciting developments in the Internet of Things (IoT). Sensors on buses, roads and elsewhere can collect and send vital information to transport providers, helping them optimize routes and ensure that vehicles and infrastructure are properly maintained. This will ultimately make transport safer, cleaner and more efficient. In the UK, the Department of Transport believes the IoT will play a major part in the future of road networks, predicting that sensors will be combined with self-heating materials and nanotechnology to prevent freezing during cold snaps.

Even the way we interact with the immediate spaces around us will change. Today, ThyssenKrupp is deploying thousands of sensors in its elevators to monitor everything from motor temperature to shaft alignment, speed and door functioning. Real-time monitoring results in instant diagnostic capabilities, which in turn helps the company to ensure its lifts run as smoothly as possible. The company is embracing machine learning to go beyond the industry standard of preventative maintenance, to offer predictive and even pre-emptive maintenance. By 2025 more organisations in the private and public sector will be embracing predictive analytics to improve many aspects of our lives.

By 2025 we'll likely be using tools such as the WorldWide Telescope to travel virtually from the street outside our house into the Solar System, through the Milky Way and out to the large scale structure of the Universe. Visualization and enhanced query performance will enable us to expand our horizons and knowledge of the Universe more than ever before.

While nascent Smart Cities are predominantly found in developed markets, the benefits of technological advances will arguably have a greater impact in emerging regions over the next 10 years. Today in Africa only 16 percent of its one-billion strong population is currently online. By 2025, this is estimated to reach 50 percent, according to McKinsey. If the internet spreads throughout the continent at the same scale and with the same impact as mobile phones, its contribution to GDP could be as much as 10 percent, or around $300 billion, the consultancy estimates. This would significantly boost the continent's social and economic development.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, where broadband penetration has already made strong progress, the market for public cloud deployments is expected to grow by an impressive 50 percent this year, according to IDC. As internet penetration rates increase, speeds advance and cloud adoption grows, businesses large and small will flourish across rapidly maturing markets over the next decade, contributing to higher GDP and boosting regional growth.

As these technologies and tools become second nature to us, another type of computing will start to take us take us far beyond what is possible today - quantum computing. Quantum computing is capable of accelerating years of lab work into minutes or hours. It can enable scientists to process computations that would take longer than the lifetime of the universe on a supercomputer, in a matter of hours or days. The potential here is enormous. Quantum computing could more quickly identify drugs to synthesize and test, combating global health problems. It could help to find a room-temperature superconductor that can aid in the creation of lossless power grids. It could empower us to combat global warming by learning how to efficiently extract carbon dioxide from mobile sources, not just stationary fossil fuel plants.

It's tempting to think of a future filled with flying cars and cities on Mars. But that's not what our world will look like a decade from now. In 2025, technological advances will enable people to lead richer, more rewarding and more productive lives, propel businesses to new heights and empower emerging markets to stand strong on a global stage. And as technology silently improves the world we live in, advancements in computing will be working on solving the next generation's problems.

Jean-Philippe Courtois is president of Microsoft International