As 2017 draws to a close, we look back at the themes that had the greatest impact—and promise to resonate next year and beyond. Through our conferences and publishing, we explored the transformative impact of emerging technologies on virtually every dimension of business and society. Of the hundreds of stories we published this year, the following in particular raise issues that we all will continue to grapple with for years to come.
The world’s leading internet companies wield enormous influence over global business, politics, and culture, but they operate without much transparency and accountability. This paves the way for potential abuses of power that put democracy and civil society at risk, warns Techonomy Founder and CEO David Kirkpatrick. Some countries may be working on measures to reign in the net giants, but Kirkpatrick worries that regulators will struggle to constrain companies that are “in many ways more powerful than governments,” and whose power derives from black box algorithms and esoteric technologies that most regulators can barely fathom. The fact that the net giants sit at the forefront of the burgeoning AI revolution makes the need for solutions particularly urgent.
The United States spends more than $3 trillion per year on healthcare—far more than any other country—but underperforms on many metrics of success, from life expectancy to patient satisfaction. This suggests massive system-wide inefficiencies that should, in theory, create huge opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to bring down costs and improve outcomes. The reality, however, is that American healthcare has fundamental features that make it impervious to change, argues healthcare expert and author Dan Munro. America’s healthcare finance system remains the key stumbling block—unlike most of its peers in the industrialized world, America does not offer universal health coverage, clinging instead to a convoluted insurance system that creates perverse incentives for all stakeholders to jack up prices. (Munro spoke at both Techonomy Health in May and Techonomy 2017 in November about the problem and some possible solutions.)
As more devices get connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), both consumers and businesses gain new opportunities to be more efficient and productive. Some auto insurers, for example, already gather data from connected cars to dynamically adjust premiums based on driving habits, rewarding those who drive carefully and intervening with others to discourage dangerous behavior on the road. The next step, of course, would be for the car to negotiate, select, and pay for the insurance itself. This might sound futuristic, but such possibilities might be closer than we think, suggests veteran tech journalist Jennifer Schenker. Financial institutions and tech companies around the world are already working on protocols that allow connected devices to become nodes for value storage and transfer. Meanwhile, emerging capabilities in AI might further endow those devices with the ability to act autonomously. The result will be a world in which devices talk and transact with each other using entirely new methods and units of exchange.
While many industries experienced massive productivity improvements in recent decades, the $8 trillion global construction industry actually witnessed productivity declines, and for the past 50 years! This is partially due to an unwillingness to invest in IT. But attitudes in the industry may be changing, says Tracy Young, CEO of PlanGrid, a construction software company. As construction companies increasingly digitize blueprints, on-site workflows, contracting, and other business processes, they will begin to be able to prevent budget overruns and project delays, which are rampant in the industry. Digitization may also have an impact beyond the bottom line—it can help improve building safety and reduce the industry’s gigantic environmental footprint (Young spoke at both Techonomy NYC in May and Techonomy 2017.)
As artificial intelligence and robotic technologies become increasingly powerful, some envision a bleak future for the global workforce. Pessimists believe that automation will lead to structural unemployment in many professional categories—particularly those that fall outside of the STEM disciplines. But Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist and author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, has a different view. He predicts that automation will eventually expand opportunities for jobs based on “the soft skills that are unique to being human,” even as they create dislocations in the near term. This suggests that a liberal arts education, which “give us the context with which we apply the new tools and our very human comparative advantage,” will have enduring and perhaps even growing relevance in an age of intelligent machines.
Will Greene is a writer and strategy consultant focused on Asia’s emerging R&D ecosystems. You can find him on LinkedIn.