Look back into economic history and you’ll see regions that prospered displaying patterns of industry built up around key developments which occurred as various factors come into alignment. Much the same way that the steel industry gave way to trains and cars and electricity gave birth to the light bulb and digital technology, all of which are all now big parts of our lives.
It happens because other complimentary technologies, infrastructure or skills combine and become the catalysts which bring new ideas, concepts and capabilities into the physical world, giving birth to the next generation of development and growth.
I see growth as being a key driver that enables the world to change what its doing today so that it can counteract things like the negative environmental impacts of our existence on this planet or ushering in a new wave of education and working practises right for a time beyond the industrial revolution and even help us overcome one day the natural death of our planet.
Isn’t it ironic that the UK, the birth place of the industrial revolution, put so much of its hopes on the financial sector and turned its back on real innovations that made this small island a global player and now it finds itself once again looking at technology to stimulate growth as the woes of the financial sector have laid a heavy burdened on the economy, both here and across the globe. Now we need to focus on real tangible things.
Because I come from a line of engineers and business people who feel we’ve become the neglected underclass’s of professionals that once were responsible for changing the archaic world we once knew, I’m glad to see this resurgence.
The key to turning this economy around will come from businesses who harness new scientific and industrial capabilities exposed by transformations in manufacturing, infrastructure and ICT.
According to the Foresight Horizon Scanning Centre there are 53 individual technologies that have been identified as important to the UK over the next 20 years, which I’ve consolidated below along with my own thoughts and experiences as both an engineer and business consultant.
Manufacturing On Demand – could bring about the end of mass market, centralised manufacturing and redistribute production to smaller, localised operations that will make customised products using hi-tech fabrication technologies driven by software. Developments in rapid prototyping and 3D printing look to be the catalysts of making this happen and one such project, currently in the open source community, is RepRap.
If you’re a Star Trek fan then you’ll now doubt have heard or even seen the Replicator, so these current developments are the birth of a journey which could bring us closer to this amazing technology, one day in the future.
We’ve seen similar things happen already on the internet with software, music, video and games. Just imagine being able to produce anything you like, all you need is an idea and the ability to describe it, which could then be purchased or downloaded from the internet, original designed by a “creator” who uploads their design and shares them with the rest of the world, which can then be reproduce locally on demand.
Smart Infrastructure – more technologies are becoming reliant upon electricity. Just look at the technology in the average home in the westernised world and its full of small computers running on electricity. It not just homes though, even cars are becoming smarter and are now being designed to run and recharge from an electrical power grid, a necessary development in the fight to reduce greenhouse carbon emissions.
This will require much greater access to electrical power sources as well as increased generation capacity. Not only will electricity require smarter control but so will other utilities like water, which will need effective management to make the most use of these natural and finite resources. As transport levels increase (in line with population increases) better systems will be needed to organise these networks, all needing high levels of sensing technology.
This will bring about a redistribution of the grids control and management infrastructure leading to wide spread micro generation, processing and metering around the world. However, with such widespread adoption of “smart” technologies comes an increased security threat as we become ever more reliant upon them they make ideal targets for hackers and terrorists.
Whilst a sales guy in the electronics industry (just over 10 years ago as I write this) I was involved with various projects including BT Bright Spark (homes of the future), smart power distribution with MEM (now part of Eaton) and embedded micro development and networking for smart micro devices, so I was lucky to see the start of this coming. Initiatives such as the OSGI will be catalysts that foster cooperation and standards necessary to open up and connect the infrastructure.
Even the internet is set to usher in a new era as the heart of our global network allows more data to become open and accessible so that is can be reused or repurposed, telling us more about the world around us and creating new businesses and working models with it.
Renewable Energies – as more of the world becomes dependent on electricity to power it, coupled with reductions in fossil fuels as those finite resources dwindle, more emphasis will be placed on storing and generating power with greater efficiency and from alternative sources. Abundant sources of energy like hydrogen along with advanced nuclear technologies such as nuclear fusion (far more efficient than current nuclear fission – see comparison) will begin to rise as alternative and credible sources of power. This will be combined with current developments in more natural sources of energy such as wind, light and wave technologies, albeit their contributions will remain small given our overall energy needs.
It will be an interesting mix of factors which combine increases in electronic devices requiring more energy, more efficient devices consuming less energy, reductions in fossil fuel power and the rise of more abundant and efficient energy sources as well as improvements in waste processing such as carbon capture to allow us to do more with less.
A driving force behind the adoption of renewable energies in the UK has been the The Renewable Energy Centre.
Regenerative Medicines – many of today’s widely adopted medical practices still fail to leverage the true power of the human body to repair and regenerate itself. Organ loss, or damage, requires aggressive and sometimes invasive treatment or risky transplants from donors (in short supply). Regenerative medicine causes previously irreparable organs to heal themselves, or for living functional tissues to be grown and safely transplanted, replacing organs that have been damaged through trauma or even congenital defects, conditions that exists (or are pre-programmed in) at our inception.
The Centre For Regenerative Medicines in the UK is based in bath.
New Materials – all of these advances will require the development of new materials and new methods of processing materials. In particular our ability to work with the finite details that make up materials we use at the smallest molecular level, known as nanotechnology will open up new worlds for human kind.
It is this “engineering” at the smallest scale which can be applied to almost any field of endeavour such as medicine, manufacturing, computing, and even textiles and cosmetics.
You can find out more about these development at the Institute of Nanotechnology located in Scotland.
I see once again the rise of engineers and scientists along with a new wave of entrepreneurs imbibed with the past and with a keen eye on tomorrow that will be changing the very fabric of our world which will be an absolute necessity if we and the world around us is going to survive and thrive.
Sure we will make mistakes and get things wrong, but the only way we can make any real difference is to seek out the truth and understand the world around us.
Misplaced “beliefs” stand in the way of our progress, even when we have proven, time and time again that facing the world through real tangible proof and evidence which may start with an unbelievable idea or concept as the goal, is our only hope.
It wasn’t that long ago that people thought the world was flat and if you sailed to the edge of it, you’d fall off, or that the sun was in fact a god or supreme being, ideas which we used to mask our inability to understand events around us and therefore were better defined as magical and mystical. With today facts from science and engineering we know this to be very different.
These developments or changes, however are not some process of pure logical thought and its application, but the combination of logic with our imagination, which makes us truly human and the advanced species we are.
Even Albert Einstein once said: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
My Intuition tells me that we need to keep dreaming and applying our way to a better world and continue pulling back the covers and bringing down the barriers erected by our past and implanted into our minds by the beliefs of a world which is rarely what it ever appears to be.