As 2013 winds down, Techonomy takes a moment to look back on highlights from the year, especially those that portend—we think—the future. Our Top Ten list recognizes the people, companies, and ideas that embodied how technology is catalyzing change in business and society. Some of the individuals and organizations here were represented at our 2013 conferences, labs, and dinners, where we convene leaders to explore the biggest tech-driven challenges and opportunities. Some were featured in our expanding online editorial content.
1. Cybersnooping on Everyone, and the Urgent Need for Response
The outing of the National Security Agency’s PRISM data-collection program and its privileged access to internal user data at nine U.S. Internet companies put surveillance and cybersecurity at the top of our list.
Not that the news was much of a surprise, especially for techonomists. American entrepreneurs funded by the CIA’s venture capital unit built the data-crunching technology behind PRISM. And others, such as Madhan Kanagavel, founder of Austin-based CodeLathe and its Tonido “personal cloud” software and service product, are capitalizing on individuals’ awareness that “personal data is no longer safe, and hasn’t been for a long time.” People may very well gear up their efforts to re-take control of their own information-—however hard that may be. Even the entertainment industry has intuited the U.S. government of spying on its citizens: In the movie “Enemy of the State” a fictional NSA agent talked about his agency’s ability and willingness to spy on every aspect of American lives, and an episode of the U.S. prime-time series “Scandal” foreshadowed the Snowden leak with eerie accuracy.
Still, Snowden’s revelations brought the real life drama to an international stage, highlighting the intrinsically global social landscape the Internet has become and the delicate political and economic relationships that will be jeopardized by short-sighted policies. As David Kirkpatrick wrote, “The implications are not just about what happens to the privacy of Americans and to the future of American political due process. There are potentially vast negative global consequences.” U.S. Internet and tech companies are frantically seeking to limit their own government’s damage to their global business prospects—an ironic and even tragic result of the ignorance about tech’s actual social role among our leaders.
2. Personal Genomics
Biology is perhaps the least-appreciated new techonomic frontier. We reported this year on transformational technologies for DNA sequencing, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that genes cannot be patented, the controversial notion that cancer genomic data should be open-access, and the debate about the value of whole genome versus exome sequencing. Each development is a milepost as new paths are blazed for an era of personal genomics. The FDA clampdown on direct-to-consumer genomic information company 23andMe last month brought the year to a climactic close for the industry that is set to massively disrupt the medical establishment. As even 23andMe said in a press release, long before the FDA’s order that the company stop marketing its services was posted online, “We believe personal genetic data will power a revolution in healthcare. But we also recognize that appropriate oversight of this industry can be a stepping-stone on the path to realizing that revolution.” We expect to see many more regulatory debates, technological transformations, legal battles, and controversial proposals from pioneers in personal genomics in the coming year.
3. Mark Bertolini, CEO, Aetna
At our November conference in Tucson, Mark Bertolini offered an unvarnished assessment of the bungled rollout of Healthcare.gov, while affirming his company’s commitment to helping the Affordable Care Act make the healthcare marketplace more efficient. He described how Aetna is experimenting with platforms for technology-driven healthcare delivery, and spoke about how his personal experiences led him to embrace alternative medicine and practices like yoga, meditation, craniosacral therapy, and modified diet. Now he sees them as integral to reducing national healthcare costs and building happier, healthier communities. If we don’t accelerate implementation of technologized healthcare soon, he warned, countries in the Middle East could beat us to the punch. We wish more CEOs would be willing to be so techonomic, and to think outside of the usual conventional boxes.
4. The Sharing Economy
From sharing rides to sharing skills, the sharing economy has established itself as a convenient, and definitely cool, alternative to traditional models of ownership. But challenging old ideas of possession and consumption doesn’t come easy, especially if big business has anything to say about it. Under pressure from lobbyists and government, Airbnb and others have gone from ardently resisting regulation to strategically accepting it, sparking debate among the sharing economy community. But with companies like Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit dominating our discourse on collaborative consumption, we’re overlooking bigger ambitions—a sharing economy that shares with everyone. As Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution suggested in an interview at Techonomy 2013, we need to work towards a more socially equitable sharing economy, one that’s focused on providing basic resources to everyone in society in a time when jobs and economic opportunity for many are seriously under threat, not just glamorous extras for the privileged few.
5. The Internet of Everything
Technology now allows us to distribute intelligence broadly across the social and business landscape, with sensors measuring everything from pollution to how many steps we take in a day. Low-cost data storage and software increasingly allows us to save and analyze this information. Our Internet of Everything Techonomy Lab in Silicon Valley highlighted some of the companies, from SmartThings to NanoSatisfi, that are at the leading edge of thinking about how distributed intelligence will manifest in business, in research, and in our daily lives.
6. Eri Gentry
Cofounder of the BioCurious hackerspace in Sunnyvale and a research manager at think-tank Institute for the Future, 30-year-old Eri Gentry has gained acclaim, including a 2013 White House Champion of Change award, as a leader of the DIY biology movement that aims to democratize access to the tools of modern biology. Gentry has no formal science training but has spoken at European Union and U.S. Department of Defense events on the importance of independent pursuits in science. She says she’d like to see policies that enable individuals who want to participate in biological research but don’t want to be at a university or a big company like Genentech. In a panel discussion at Techonomy 2013 in Tucson, she said, “Finding cures really matters and we’re not getting to the place we need to be quickly enough.”
7. Putting the Arts and Humanities Next to STEM to Make STEAM
Results from international assessment tests showed U.S. students ranking 26th in math and 21st in science among 34 developed countries. Those results simply won’t cut it when it comes to preparing the U.S. workforce for tomorrow’s competitive global techonomy. But we’ve always been a breeding ground for innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers. Catching up to the rest of the world in STEM disciplines is compulsory, but, as John Maeda pointed out at our Tucson conference and in his article for Techonomy.com, integrating the arts into STEM will also be essential to nurturing homegrown tech pioneers. Geeks who can’t be creative won’t do anybody much good in a time of constant innovation.
We wrote a lot about Quirky in 2012, but 2013 was the New York based product development company’s breakthrough year. With a platform that allows users to submit product ideas, products are refined and developed with support from Quirky’s state-of-the-art engineering and prototyping facilities. It’s all part of founder Ben Kaufman’s vision of making invention accessible to everyone. With its growing line of products available in big-box stores like Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Quirky bolstered its outlook in 2013 by announcing a patent-sharing partnership with GE in April, hiring former chief of the (lower-cased) company frog and Techonomy speaker Doreen Lorenzo as president in October, and closing a $79 million funding round in November. Quirky’s community-based model for innovation has officially hit the mainstream.
9. Gabriella Gómez-Mont
Just a few months ago, Gómez-Mont launched a project in her native Mexico City aimed at jump-starting civic engagement. The Laboratorio para la Ciudad offers a new platform for collaboration between government and civil society aimed at fostering urban creativity, engaging the city’s youth, and healing social division. The program already partnered with Code for America to create Code for Mexico City, recruiting six civic-minded programmers from a pool of 253 applicants. Gómez-Mont spoke at Techonomy 2013 about intelligent design in 21st-century cities. Cities are becoming the best government laboratory for innovation worldwide, as national governments increasingly show themselves hidebound by bureaucracy and old-fashioned thinking. Techonomy continues to focus on the importance of cities for society at our Techonomy Detroit conference, which returns September 16, 2014.
10. Data Mining for Humanitarianism
The U.S. may be the leading consumer of iPhones, but the developing world is home to a majority of the globe’s cell phones—most of them antiquated, by our discerning, “first-world” standards. But these “cheap,” “outdated” phones provide big, up-to-date data that’s being used to combat the symptoms of poverty, including trends of disease, unemployment, and social unrest. By mining data from cell phones (along with social media and e-commerce sites), researchers and humanitarian organizations like Global Pulse can analyze and identify spikes at their onset, deploying aid before it’s too late. It’s called big data for development, and it’s poised to make big advances in humanitarianism and philanthropy.
With consumer models of 3D printers like MakerBot and Solidoodle already on the market, it won’t be long before even the average home can manufacture its own household items. This portends a tremendous change in manufacturing and even in the nature of consumerism. Software becomes even more important, as it evolves among other things into a tool for showing ordinary citizens how to make hardware at home. Shapeways, too, offers access to 3D-printed gadgets, games, and accessories by way of a 3D printing marketplace for buyers and sellers working to monetize the maker movement. But additive manufacturing isn’t just for knickknacks and playthings. And it’s not all DIY. Researchers are currently devising advanced 3D printers capable of printing plant-life, food supplies, and human organs. Imagine using a 3D printer to fight starvation and sickness. Now that’s the kind of manufacturing movement we want in our future.
MIT Center for Collective Intelligence
This MIT project is bringing science to the study of how people work together. The question that its research asks: “How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?” The Center’s director, Thomas Malone, spoke at our Techonomy 2013 conference about how statistical techniques help to measure the intelligence of groups. Among the study’s startling conclusions: social perceptiveness, evenly distributed participation, and a high percentage of women make groups more collectively intelligent and productive.