In the technology and business world, we tend to live in a culture of lists. I call it the "Up Next Syndrome." People want to know which trends matter, which technologies will change the future of business, and they turn to lists in order to find out. This lust for lists generates series after series, item after item, and each technology has "and up next is..." feel to it. It feels like a bit of a circus: "Over here, we have the cloud! And up next, pharmacogenomics. And later, we'll be welcoming advanced robotics to the stage."
The problem is, if you're an entrepreneur or an innovator, looking toward the future, what do or should these lists mean for you? How does one take an item from these lists and build a business or solution around it? Especially if the measure of success is making people's lives better?
Take McKinsey's recent list of twelve "disruptive" technologies that will transform life as we know it. The list is well-researched, and well-presented, and backed by an impressive 176 page report. And it includes some heavy contenders -- new forms of storage emerge, 3D printing, renewables, advanced materials, the automation of knowledge work and more. These are, to be sure, serious technologies that will no doubt terraform much of what we know and take for granted, but the listing of them, one after another, doesn't supply a direction for opportunity unless you're already a part of, or looking to get into, one of those industries.
To go from list to insight requires moving beyond the Up Next Syndrome. It requires context and timing.
For context, we need to think about the mega-trends structuring our collective future: population growth, environmental stability, and the pressures wrought by an aging population living longer on average than any generation in human history. These will play out differently in different locations and amongst different social structures, and that specificity is what matters, not the listing of key trends, because it is in specificity that opportunity lies.
For timing, we need to think about those technologies that are really responsive to their moment. The reality is, that while we often tend to think of these new technologies as the sexy, shiny objects of the younger generation, this perpetual marketing fantasy obscures the reality of where these technologies could most productively intervene and how. In so doing, they complement the "Up Next" nature of these lists.
Let me give you an example. The so-called Internet of Things -- the idea that everyday devices will be embedded with sensors and arrays that allow them to coordinate and communicate with each other in order to better fit the needs of their users -- is already being sold to us in the banal, pre-packaged fantasy of a house controlled from a tablet or smartphone, as if keys and light-switches are just such wildly inconvenient technologies. This is decontextualized thinking, and it pays little attention to the challenges of our time.
I see it differently. Future opportunities will emerge from what today might seem like unlikely pairings, and I will aim to address the challenges of this moment, not just marketing fantasies. I don't want to see the Internet of Things imagined through some fantasy of a tech-savvy young urban professional turning off the family room lights from bed; instead we need a real solution that caters to the aging, non-tech savvy individual, and in so doing transforms what aging is and means to society; helping real people with real challenges.
When we think about the institutional challenges posed by an aging population, one of the most fundamental is that of health care. Creative spirit and a zeal for life are not guarantees for health, the elderly are often forced by biological circumstance into treatment facilities and group homes, and sometimes long-term hospital stays. Those that remain at home must travel frequently for tests and check-ups, because physicians and health care provides have at present rather limited ability to monitor and ascertain health conditions at a distance. And the medical technology that does offer remote monitoring often imposes collateral burdens that include inconvenience and indignity. As a result, the home -- which is so important to perceptions of family and belonging, and a source of that happiness that comes from living on one's own terms -- ends up left behind, a sacrifice to the dictates of biology.
The ubiquitous connection among very small things offers new ways for maintaining autonomy, enjoying one's home, and still responsibly monitoring one's health. A few companies aiming to make these critical connections are Proteus Biomedical, Scanadu, and Microsoft.
Proteus Biomedical is pioneering biodegradable, ingestible monitors that can monitor and report on the presence and effect of pharmaceuticals in the body. Ideally, paired with smartphones and digital life management programs, this technology should prevent disruptions in pharmaceutical regimens, and radically improve the ability to tailor drug treatments to individuals' unique needs.
Scanadu's new "Scout" product, the closest thing I've seen to the Star Trek tricorder, offers an astonishing range of personal monitoring and health information, and when paired with other communicative devices should better facilitate interactions with medical staff and reduce unnecessary doctor's visits.
And let's not forget a rather banal example of what's coming just later this year when the new Xbox Kinect, complete with the ability to observe and monitor your heartbeat, arrives in millions of living rooms.
But so long as these devices remain isolated from others, or so long as they remain in silos like "gaming" or "medicine" or "home security," they will remain merely individual pieces of an incomplete puzzle. This is where real business opportunity can be found. Facilitating the services and the synergies that connect the technologies of the Internet of Things to the realities and challenges facing people today requires vision, partnership, and a willingness to drill down and focus on a specific context at a specific time.
We can't get to our brave new world by simply anticipating what's up next and waiting for the next list of the "Key Things We Should Know." The tools and opportunities are already here, right now, ready to be put to work.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in association with TEDxKalamata's conference on July 26-27 in Greece. For more information, visit www.TEDxKalamata.com.