Picking tomorrow's technology winners

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Picking tomorrow's technology winners

Opinion: The radical can become the essential.

It has been almost twenty years since Harvard professor Clayton Christensen first explained his theory on why technologies which initially receive a weak reception from the mainstream can eventually overturn existing market orders and become the norm. He coined this concept ‘disruptive technology'.

Imagine life without everyday items such as digital photography which, despite starting out with low picture quality and poor resolution, now dominates the marketplace and strongly influences how we all communicate.

Could you do without Wireless LAN technology, which CSIRO initially struggled to patent in the 1990s? This technology now connects billions of people around the world to the internet and to each other.

Despite these success stories, the challenges of helping our society adapt and embrace new technologies still remains. Although many scientists and researchers passionately believe in the potential of so-called ‘disruptive technologies’ and their benefit to our society, economy and environment, these innovations are often branded as too radical at the time of conception. In many cases, this is because the impact is too difficult to quantify or the anticipated adoptability of the technology has not been adequately thought through and are hence rejected by the masses.

While Australia has received worldwide praise for our strong and resilient economy, largely as a result of our strong commodity markets and increasing demand from the emerging Chinese and Indian super-economies, we are currently faced with the challenge (pdf) of maintaining a competitive edge in an increasingly complex global market and resource-limited world.

However, a recent report released by the McKinsey Institute predicts the potential economic contribution of new disruptive technologies - such as mobile internet, advanced robotics and 3D printing - are expected to return between $14 trillion and $33 trillion globally per year by 2025.

By taking the leap of faith to invest in innovation and new technologies, governments and industry have the opportunity to help create a successful digital economy which will drive Australia’s future economic growth and contribute to quality of life and wellbeing. 

Interestingly, the disruptive technologies referenced in the latest McKinsey Institute report have a reduced focus on new gadgets and gizmos and an increased emphasis on technologies which require advanced data analytics.

Furthermore, a recent Cisco report (pdf), predicts that by 2020 there will be 37 billion ‘things’, from our car to our fridge door, connected to the internet. When you consider this in the context of the rollout of Australia’s national broadband infrastructure and further predictions (pdf) that the average person will own six different smart devices by 2020, it is easy to see how our increasingly connected lives have led to this explosion in the volume, velocity and variety of data and information now available at our fingertips.

I would encourage governments and industry alike to proactively take the initiative to address the impact of our future data and information challenges, rather than simply waiting to react to them. The CSIRO is doing this with its new Computational Informatics (CCI) division

These disruptive technologies may very well be the innovations which drive the economy of tomorrow, enabling us to make a more connected, productive and resilient nation for future generations.

Dr Bronwyn Harch is Chief of CSIRO’s Computational Informatics Division.

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