In 1990, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen defined the concept of disruptive innovation, a Schumpeterian crasis reflecting the simultaneous destruction of old paradigms and the creation of new ones through technology. Time passed, and disruption became a buzzword in Silicon Valley and, by extension, in every workplace: the ability to “move fast and break things” – to use the favourite aphorism of the disruptor par excellence, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg – became the characteristic that any (hungry and crazy) innovator had to possess.
However, times have changed. According to the Guardian, Silicon Valley is now launching a counteroffensive against disruption: “It describes the sort of serial entrepreneur who can ride from one start-up to the next without much fear for his future, or much regard for the young tech workers left in the lurch when each company crumples in”, says Leight Alexander in his op-ed. Perhaps, this is a sign of the changing times. A time when robots are arriving in our factories, in our homes and in our offices. A time when cryptocurrencies are no longer a toy for (not so) grown-up nerds. A time when the amount of personal data collected by tech companies has reached unimaginable levels. A time when we have delegated a large portion of our processes, at home and on the road, to machines that talk to one other. A time when people have finally started to realise what’s going on, shedding the guise of the happy consumer and citizen, and starting to question the social value of all this innovation.
If this is the scenario that awaits us in 2018, then perhaps we should enlist new words to understand what it will be like to live and work in the future. Words that are less fascinating, perhaps, but certainly more useful.
The first word is undoubtedly training. Partly because the world has changed enormously, but most of all because technology has driven change at an impressive rate.
Training. The first word is undoubtedly training. Partly because the world has changed enormously, but most of all because technology has driven change at an impressive rate. It is now common belief that learning is a lifelong process, and that we constantly need to be disposed to learn new things. In 2017, the emphasis was on industry, mainly in the manufacturing field. The demand for training was linked with industry 4.0, generating a whole host of business academies and renewing attention on technical institutes, coding and robotics, right from primary school. That’s all well and good, but it’s like looking at the future through a peephole. Because every professional – lawyers, doctors, journalists, and even teachers – will be forced to learn new things, and to radically change their very idea of work. Lifelong learning is a revolution that will fundamentally change our lives. Even – indeed, especially – if we decide to do without it.
Security. Cyberattack was a word relegated to the realm of science fiction. Now, says Bloomberg, US security experts are convinced that there is a real threat that hackers may be able to break into the country’s electrical and nuclear power plants and “switch off America”, who knows for how long. If you have no idea what that means, just try to think of the cost of hacking the data centres of Google or Facebook. And think also about this: if hackers can switch off America, they can also penetrate every area of life of individuals and companies alike. An easy prediction to make is that 2018 will see considerable investments in computer security. And if you feel like reinventing yourselves and learning something new, this could be the way to go.
Analysis. Ok, so we’ve collected so much big data as to be able to foresee just about everything about just about anyone. But the real question is, do we know how to interpret such data? Five years ago, the Harvard Business Review said that data scientist would be the sexiest job of the 21st century, and perhaps it wasn’t so far off the mark. Especially today, when everything is interconnected and big data looks set to become the white noise of our age – a blurred mass that defies our ability to analyse it. That is why, if we worked for a company, we’d invest more on date scientists than on creatives.
Contamination. Anthropologists and sociologists to study the interaction between humans and machines in everyday life; psychologists to understand how an elderly person might react to a plastic and silicon carer; philosophers to understand how self-driving cars will react in the face of moral dilemmas – kill a dog, or avoid it at the risk of killing the driver? Let’s make a bet: the new STEM degrees of 2018 will be the faculties in humanistic and social fields, and the new technical high schools of tomorrow will be the schools specialising in humanistic studies. Contamination between scientific and humanistic knowledge will be the key to interpreting the relationship between the human and non-human spheres.
Adaptation. Let us take the story of Barbara Mazzolai, biologist and researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology: “A robot designed to measure the quality of soil must fit into narrow spaces; it must be able to move and adapt to unforeseen situations,” she explains. “Plants are a paradigm for all this: plants are the only living beings that associate movement with growth.” Adapting to unforeseen situations, fitting into narrow spaces, associating movement with growth: it’s like the paradigm of the contemporary worker. Who would have thought that the hope for 2018 – and, indeed, for the years to come – would be to become more like plants?