Manufacturing guy-at-large.

first reaction: McKinsey Global Institute's Distruptive Technologies report, May 2013

Added on by Spencer Wright.

it's taking a few days to get through, but last month's MGI report on disruptive technologies (n.b., i'm as sick of the term "disruptive" as you are, but will leave it to someone else to come up with something better) is an interesting and thought provoking read.  i won't go into all the details, but a few standout points are worth mentioning.  [note: you can find the report, and follow along with me, here.] 

the ranking.  let's face it: this is why i'm reading the thing.  mckinsey set out to determine which technologies are likely to have the greatest economic impact between now and 2025, a subject which impacts me not only as a long-term consumer and member of society, but also as a guy-who-claims-to-be-shifting-careers (n.b. the number of levels on which you could read this are...more than one).  now, just because MGI decided that the mobile internet is likely to have the greatest impact doesn't mean i'm about to spend the next twelve years working on MQTT (or peddling cell phones, for that matter).  but all things being equal, i want to be in a field that, 1. i can make an impact in; 2. i can leverage my ability to learn to provide high economic value for myself and the organizations i work with; 3. is compelling from a "we're-changing-the-world (in a good way)" perspective; etc.  and to the extent that mckinsey's ranking captures at least some of these factors, i was excited to see what they had to say. 

a few notes on the entries themselves:

  • as MGI notes midway through the executive summary: "The link between hype and potential is not clear."  noted. 
  • yeah, 3d printing is on there.  at 9th place, leading up the list's long tail.  
  • basically, computers rock.  by my count, the top six entries amount to "machines taking shit over."
  • whatever you think about fracking, it's a big business opportunity for the next year or two. 
  • solar/wind/waves are cool, but energy storage - on both a small (e.g. hybrid car batteries) and large (smart energy grids, with the ability to transport and store large amounts of energy efficiently)  - is cooler.
  • graphene, man.  and, like, nanotubes.

it's also worth giving a huge shout-out to the Internet of Things, which is projected to have an impact larger than the bottom five contestants combined.  it also has the potential to combine with a number of other items on the list, multiplying the impact:

We see that certain emerging technologies could be used in combination, reinforcing each other and potentially driving far greater impact...It is possible that the first commercially available nano-electromechanical machines (NEMS), molecule-sized machines, could be used to create very advanced sensors for wearable mobile Internet devices or Internet of Things applications.
the top of the list ends up being a list of the technologies that are the most general purpose, and thus have the most immediate day-to-day impact on consumers.   the effect is largely positive - a feeling which i share myself (are you fucking *kidding* me you're not excited for google glass?!??).

Many of the technologies on our list have the potential to deliver the lion’s share of their value to consumers, even while providing producers with sufficient profits to encourage technology adoption and production. Technologies like next- generation genomics and advanced robotics could deliver major health benefits, not all of which may be usable by health-care payers and providers, many of whom face growing pressure to help improve patient outcomes while also reducing health-care costs. Many technologies will also play out in fiercely competitive consumer markets—particularly on the Internet, where earlier McKinsey research has shown consumers capture the majority of the economic surplus created. Mobile Internet, cloud, and the Internet of Things are prime examples. Also, as technologies are commercialized and come into widespread use, competition tends to shift value to consumers. 

but on the labor side, the situation is quite different.   as Thomas Friedman wrote in late april, "this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you."  MGI writes:

The nature of work will change, and millions of people will require new skills.  It is not surprising that new technologies make certain forms of human labor unnecessary or economically uncompetitive and create demand for new skills. This has been a repeated phenomenon since the Industrial Revolution: the mechanical loom marginalized home weaving while creating jobs for mill workers. However, the extent to which today’s emerging technologies could affect the nature of work is striking. Automated knowledge work tools will almost certainly extend the powers of many types of workers and help drive top-line improvements with innovations and better decision making, but they could also automate some jobs entirely. Advanced robotics could make more manual tasks subject to automation, including in services where automation has had less impact until now. Business leaders and policy makers will need to find ways to realize the benefits of these technologies while creating new, innovative ways of working and providing new skills to the workforce.

and later: 

One clear message: the nature of work is changing. Technologies such as advanced robots and knowledge work automation tools move companies further to a future of leaner, more productive operations, but also far more technologically advanced operations. The need for high-level technical skills will only grow, even on the assembly line. Companies will need to find ways to get the workforce they need, by engaging with policy makers and their communities to shape secondary and tertiary education and by investing in talent development and training; the half-life of skills is shrinking, and companies may need to get back into the training business to keep their corporate skills fresh.

as is my wont, my tendency is to read the paper from the perspective of the oft-mentioned "business leader."  it strikes me that the advice MGI gives business leaders is the advice we should all take, albeit to varying scales (emphasis and comments below are mine):

As these disruptive technologies continue to evolve and play out, it will be up to business leaders, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and citizens to maximize their opportunities while dealing with the challenges. Business leaders need to be on the winning side of these changes. [snw: yeah... individuals too.] They can do that by being the early adopters or innovators or by turning a disruptive threat into an opportunity. The first step is for leaders to invest in their own technology knowledge. Technology is no longer down the hall or simply a budget line; it is the enabler of virtually any strategy, whether by providing the big data analytics that reveal ways to reach new customer groups, or the Internet of Things connections that enable a whole new profit center in after-sale support. Top leaders need to know what technologies can do and how to bend it to their strategic goals. Leaders cannot wait until technologies are fully baked to think about how they will work for—or against— them. And sometimes companies will need to disrupt their own business models before a rival or a new competitor does it for them.

ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide he own path through a shifting landscape.  but the opportunity is out there, and it can only be realized on the individual level if the individual decides to act as his own business leader, his own policy maker:

Policy makers can find ways to turn the disruptions into positive change; they can encourage development of the technologies that are most relevant to their economies...The challenge for policy makers—and for citizens—is enormous. It is a good time for policy makers [snw: and individuals!] to review how they address technology issues and develop a systematic approach; technology stops for no one, and governments [snw: again: and individuals!] cannot afford to be passive or reactive.