The impact of digital technology in recent years has been dramatic. Discussions about technology and its implications have rapidly moved from the internet chat room to the board room and the cabinet room. The ubiquity of digital communications has enabled both unprecedented citizen surveillance capabilities as well as the torch of transparency to make this public. And yet, if over 800 experts, executives, young people and academics who responded to the recent survey in our report Technological Tipping Points and Societal Impact are correct, we are just at the beginning of a much bigger shift in our society.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society started out with a mandate to help leaders across all domains understand the transformative impact software-enabled technologies are bringing to the world. In fact, not just leaders, but we thought everyone had a right to understand what might come. The only problem was we couldn’t agree on what was to come, let alone what the impact was or guiding others to respond to it. We could list lots of technologies we thought would make a big difference, but we couldn’t paint a common picture of what a future would look like. So, we decided to crowdsource the answer. And, the results were dramatic.
For 20 out of 21 technological capabilities we asked about, more than 50% of respondents believed that the tipping point we identified would happen by 2025. What was most interesting was that the distribution of answers was pretty much the same across continents, age groups (from teenagers to those in their 70s), gender and levels of educational.
The results of this survey, startling as they were, are now allowing us to begin the real work. Using this picture of the future as our starting point, we can try to imagine what such a world would look like. What do all these changes mean for us?
Jobs and the nature of work
Will technology bring freedom from the bondage of labour, or mass unemployment and unrest? Real-time data, automation and machine learning can automate many tasks that currently provide steady employment to many. Can we deal with this shift in a positive manner, providing inclusive opportunities for a diverse, dynamic and creative economy? Or will jobs just dry up, capital concentrate still further, increasing the wealth gap and fomenting unrest? Even if we are doing the right things, can we adjust quick enough?
Will our online world be like New York in the 1980s or 2010s? Should digital products be encrypted by default? The Internet of Things, 3D printing, machine learning – many of these other technologies raise the stakes in security. Encryption can go a long way to providing the levels of security we might want to see in this world, but leaves criminal justice and intelligence communities without tools they’ve grown used to. However, security is no longer just about bigger walls – in the networked world there are no boundaries. It is about changing attitudes, for example, treating security as a business risk when developing new products or services, or embedding the culture of security as strongly as the culture of safety in heavy engineering disciplines.
Transparency, trust and privacy
How do we balance the rights of the individual with social goods in relation to data? How do we ensure consumer protections? Individuals need to have confidence about how their data is being used. Discussions around privacy have broadened from just considering data collection to considering data usage. However, data can be used in a myriad of ways to create social value that cannot be predetermined at the point of collection – many of which most of us would be very happy for some of our data to contribute to. Beyond the privacy vs security debate, there are other social goods as well, such as medical research or disaster response. Is it possible to create a framework where individuals have appropriate rights over data relating to them, governments can provide social goods and companies can innovate to create new services to those who want them?
Will we see a golden age of creativity, or will we optimize for efficiency to the point of stalling of a consumption based economy? Real-time monitoring, AI, automation, 3D printing, asset-sharing – these technological capabilities bring dramatic productivity and efficiency gains to the economy. Will reduced investments in assets coupled with reduced consumption and savings as a result of lower employment have the potential to stall the economy, or will we be able to capitalize on these innovations to unleash still further creativity?
Organizations, societal structures and individuals
Can businesses, governments and individuals adapt to the networked world? We are seeing a shift from hierarchies that reinforce information and resource hierarchies that maintain stability to networks that enable dynamic self-organization and mobilization. Social structures are fundamentally shifting as a result of access to information. How do we foster productive movements and mitigate mob behaviour or misinformation? Anyone can change the world; anything can be destroyed.
Technological Tipping Points and Societal Impact is available here.
The Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015 is taking place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September.
Author: Derek O’Halloran, Head of Information Technology and Electronics Industries, Information and Communication Technology Industries, World Economic Forum
Image: A visitor tests an exoskeleton from CEA during the Innorobo 2014 fair (Innovation Robotics Summit) in Lyon March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta