As a futurist, I am often asked to make predictions for the year ahead. I usually explain that the primary role of a futurist is not to predict but to provoke. Our goal is to help people explore uncertainty and challenge their assumptions so they can shape the future they want.
From time to time, however, it feels good to dust off the crystal ball and consider some of the trends that will have a big influence in the near future. I have been thinking a lot recently about the impact that digital technologies will have on how we live and work, both today and in the future.
We are living through an unprecedented period in human history, one in which the internet has enabled near-instantaneous connections between people and machines at a scale never seen before. I call this mass of connections the Digital Connectome, borrowing the term ‘connectome’ from neuroscience where it is used to describe the map of the elements and connections – neurons, synapses, etc – in a human brain.
It is of course easier to map the internet than the human brain but I believe the Connectome analogy is a good one. The internet has evolved to a scale and complexity that rivals a brain, comprising huge numbers of people, machines, sensors and increasingly intelligent and autonomous software systems. Like the firing of a neuron in the brain, the underlying IP communications protocol is pretty simple. At scale, however, the richness and complexity of the phenomena that emerge are, like consciousness, amazing and unpredictable.
These phenomena are transforming and disrupting long established business models and changing the way we live and work. Here are just three of the most influential emerging trends.
The concept of money is evolving
A wealth of new ways of exchanging value – from decentralised crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, to peer-to-peer platforms that enable the trading and exchanging of time, attention and influence as well as goods and services – are emerging to challenge the status quo.
Our education systems are undergoing a seismic shift
The process of learning, and the skills and capabilities required for the future, are changing. People are using massive open online courses (MOOCs) and are drawing on vast resources of knowledge that is available through the personal devices that are increasingly integrated with our bodies.
The nature of work is itself is being transformed
As automation moves beyond the factory, to encroach upon increasingly sophisticated kinds of knowledge work, we will see a number of new economic and social challenges.
This is a good time to reflect upon what the future might bring. To survive and thrive in the world of the Digital Connectome, and take advantage of the opportunities it brings, businesses need to reimagine themselves and adapt and reconfigure their business models. They need to be more agile, to respond to innovation as well as threats from new competitors, whether start-ups or out-of-sector companies. This means much more than just technology, a new mobile app, or social marketing. The Digital Connectome requires a new kind of business, one that looks different both on the inside and on the outside.
Rob Gear is a futurist at PA Consulting Group
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