A Framework for Trendspotting

By

trends

It’s 1977 and a CEO stands at the head of a boardroom and makes a sweeping declaration: “Personal computers will redefine the way business is done in the future.” There is some agreement–and conformity–in the room, while others struggle to understand what a “personal computer” even is.

Fast forward to 2015, and a CEO, mid-way through an hour-long Google Hangout with his leadership team, makes a sweeping declaration: “Big Data is will change our business forever.” Again, there is some agreement, but for the majority, “big data” is just another overhyped buzzword.

The personal computer did end up redefining business; it’s also redefined almost every aspect of society. Will the same be true for Big Data? With so much noise, jargon, and opinion surrounding the impact of future trends–Mobile, Social, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, and Big Data–how can you identify game-changing trends from short-lived fads?

History Repeats Itself

We can learn a lot about how future trends may evolve by understanding how past trends have played out. Game-changing trends and technological advancements have tended to display a combination of the following traits:

1. Technical Inaccessibility: In its early stages, a trend is only truly understood by a niche group of individuals with a very specialized skillset.

and/or

2. Retrofitting: Most technological advancements look like a better versions of things that already exist. A trend distinguishes itself when it is applied to beyond its original, narrow use case–when it is “retrofitted” to additional applications–and develops a unique voice and identity as a result.

and

3. Intangible Potential: This is a general, non-scientific consensus that a trend could have broad, deep, positive (and negative) implications for society.

The first trait suggests that a trend is out of the reach of the masses (inaccessible). The second trait indicates a trend is currently being applied in a limited way (retrofitted). The third trait is essentially a precondition for a technology or trend to be truly game-changing.

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How BIG will data be?

The conversations around Big Data today are a similar to the conversations that people were having around Personal Computers in the in late ’70s and early ‘80s. We can see a lot of parallels between the two:

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Overcoming Technical Inaccessibility of Data Science at GE

If any company is making a big bet on Big Data, it’s General Electric. Much like Apple and IBM did with personal computers more than three decades ago, GE is trying to push through the barrier of Technical Inaccessibility in the Big Data sphere. Through its Predix platform, GE is democratizing industrial data and analytics, giving organizations the ability to seamlessly extract real-time insights from their data assets.  

Already, GE has begun to make data more accessible, and therefore meaningful, across multiple industries: from improving patient outcomes through digital health initiatives, to reducing flight delays by predicting the need for aircraft maintenance, to optimizing efficiency in the generation of renewable energy.

Websites, Apps, and the Internet of Things: From Retrofitting to Ecosystems

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Big Data is not the only trend which exhibits the features outlined above. The Internet of Things is another widely discussed and debated trend, which clearly demonstrates the retrofitting state.

Many groundbreaking technological advancements linger in the retrofitting state before they evolve and create entirely new ecosystems.

  • Websites: First generation websites simply replicated the print world online–they had the look and feel of ‘digital brochures,’ literally pages of text on the web. Over time, websites developed their own voice and ecosystem: ecommerce, blogs, online communities, and digital advertising, to name a few.
  • Mobile Apps: Like first generation websites, mobile apps took initial cues from the web, essentially scaled-down version of a website. However, much like websites, a unique voice and ecosystem evolved around mobile apps; they became more than simply a rehashed website by taking advantage of unique features of smartphones–such as touch screens and gyro sensors– and giving rise to mobile-only business such as Uber and Whatsapp.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Like websites in the mid-’90s and mobile apps 5-7 years ago, the IoT is in its infancy, and a lot of initial focus has been on retrofitting existing ‘things’ with internet connectivity, with a focus on automation, optimization, and remote monitoring of existing technologies and systems (e.g., Nest).

As for the future of the IoT, we’re already seeing the heavy investment by both public and private sector organizations. The Obama administration recently announced $160 million to fund “smart city” research, while consulting giant PwC has partnered with Techstars to launch an IoT accelerator in NYC. There is no doubt that there is Intangible Potential in the IoT and that in the coming years a unique ecosystem will emerge.

Where Should I Be Making Big Bets?

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Source: Computer History

Here are three big bets that we should all be making:

  1. Bet on companies that are making extremely technical concepts accessible to a wider population. Invest in technologies that can make working with Big Data as simple as building a Squarespace website.  
  2. Bet on companies that are building ecosystems rather than technologies. Instead of investing in smart or connected devices, invest in companies creating connections across these devices.
  3. Bet on trends where there is big, intangible potential, and initial tangible traction, across multiple industries. Invest in Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Virtual Reality, Mobile and Social.

“Investing” in these trends and technologies can take many forms. In it simplest form, it means money. However, the most important investment we can make today is time–time to educate ourselves about the technologies that will reshape our world. Just imagine how challenging life would be if we never learned how to use a PC.

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