Business leaders need to look at the far horizon once in a while. What’s that thing in the distance? Is it a pot of gold, or is a gorilla coming our way? Busy executives and small business owners all agree on the need to look deep into the future, but have many urgent problems that need attention today. But all leaders need to carve out some time to ponder what’s ahead. A good approach is to read the new book, The Innovation Ultimatum, by Steve Brown.
The author was Intel’s in-house futurist, so he knows a lot of gee-whiz technology. Business, though, is the focus of the book, with technology the tool to achieve better business results. Even when Brown is diving into a new technology, he comes back to how companies can use the technology to better serve customers at lower cost.
Six strategic technologies drive the book, followed by many examples of industries using these six technologies today. The first technology is artificial intelligence. Brown provides a layman’s introduction to the field, offers examples of what is working today and what will be working tomorrow, then ends the chapter—as he does each of the six technology chapters—with strategies that business can and should start thinking about today.
Some of the book’s business advice can be implemented immediately, such as “gather data today to feed the AIs of the future.” Other recommendations lay the groundwork for future action steps. For example, Brown recommends “build a comprehensive digital voice strategy” around technologies for voice recognition and computer-generated speech. This seemed a little bit early to me, so my first draft of this article included, “Not many mechanics today are talking to their tools.” That’s true, but an internet search to check my assumption showed me a voice-controlled torque wrench, allowing the user to say something like, “Wrench, give me 90 pounds of torque.” All across business functions, writes Brown, voice technology will change the way we interact with customers, employees and suppliers.
Sensors and the Internet of Things is the second key technology, with suggestions for getting “eyes on your business” to act on events in real time or at least very quickly. We have a great deal of this already, such as my tires reporting in to my car’s central nervous system. Brown reports that a Starbucks in China uses its wifi system to count how many people are in the store, even if they are not connected to the store’s wifi. Music adjusts automatically to encourage lingering when the store is not crowded, but transitions to up-tempo, high energy tunes when the store is full and they want people to leave and make room for new customers..
Autonomous machines, including robots and self-driving vehicles, constitute the third major technological trend. Autonomous cars seem not to be developing as rapidly as we expected, but other aspects of robotics are taking off. Brown provides a valuable insight: “Most automation will involve the semi-automation of business processes. Rather than using automation to replace human jobs, the goal of semi-automation is to build human-machine partnerships and elevate the work of humans.” On a recent home improvement project, I was screwing in a fixture that my father would have installed with a screwdriver. My battery-powered drill/driver did not replace me, the human, but made my work a lot faster and easier. In a factory setting, most screws can be installed by robots, explaining why manufacturing productivity is rising faster than construction productivity, but also illustrating the opportunities for robotics outside of factories.
Distributed ledgers and blockchains are Brown’s fourth major technology. This is a daunting subject to explain in simple terms, but the author succeeds by continuing the focus on what the technology means for business.
Virtual, augmented and mixed reality form the fifth major technology. Virtual reality may be less relevant aside from games, but augmented reality will be huge. In a speech about technology a decade ago, I told the story of trying to replace a burnt-out lightbulb on an old car. The owner’s manual had a sketch diagram that was hard to match up with what I was looking at. If I was in the right space, the panel should slide easily. Maybe it did when the car was new, but not now. Was I in the right place? Should I grab the big screwdriver. Fortunately, I checked on-line forums and learned that somebody else had caused $200 of damage with his big screwdriver.
Here’s what should happen. I sync my eyeglasses with the car’s owner’s manual. I say (using voice operation technology), “I want to replace the right rear taillight bulb.” My glasses then outline the exact panel I’m looking at, to make sure I’m in the right spot. An arrow appears pointing in the direction I’m supposed to push. And if a screwdriver appears in the picture, an alarm sounds and a red slash is superimposed on the nasty tool.
The final technology is connecting everything and everyone using 5G networks and satellites. Brown mentions that applications such as telemedicine need faster connections. We’ve learned that many activities can be done remotely, but there are still frustrations. This is the least surprising part of the book, as we can all envision data connections becoming faster.
Any list of major technologies will disappoint some. My personal regret is not seeing more about modern genetic technology. Not only is it transforming medicine, but agriculture as well. Food production is slowly moving outside the farm and into the fermentation vat, allowing the planet to feed more people using less land. Molecular biology can also transform fabric-making. We began clothing ourselves with all natural products, such as leaves and bark, leather, cotton and hemp. Now we wear many petrochemical-based fibers such as nylon and polyester. Natural products may well be produced by reverse-engineering nature to develop great materials in a chemical plant without using petroleum derivatives.
After describing the six major technologies, Brown dives into different industries. Even those outside of a given industry can glean ideas from other sectors. These chapters discuss transportation, retail, supply chains, manufacturing, construction. The healthcare chapter is especially valuable. The book concludes with insights about education and keeping people at the forefront of technology
The Innovation Ultimatum is occasionally a recitation of items we’ve seen in business magazines, but it’s easily skimmable. What sets it apart from other futurist books is the continual focus on business applications. It would be a great conversation-starter for the management team.
One of Brown’s final recommendations left me optimistic: “Honor every customer as a unique individual.” Early technology forced us to conform to the machine’s standards. We received cards with the admonition, “Do not fold, stable or mutilate.” In the new world, we can communicate with the machine by card, typing or voice. We can fold, stable or mutilate if the spirit moves us. That’s liberating technology.