1. Silicon Valley’s next frontier: Infrastructure
In 2014, we saw tech giants beginning to tackle “cures” for aging. This year, Silicon Valley’s latest grand utopian ambition seems to be in public infrastructure. The Hyperloop Transportation Technologies project, inspired by Elon Musk’s vision laid out in 2013, envisions a high-speed vacuum-tube transit system straight out of science fiction. The company is forging ahead with commercial partnerships and aims to begin construction of a full-scale, passenger-ready version sometime in 2016. Google is getting serious about autonomous vehicles, planning to bring them to market by 2020, which could change the roads as we know them.
Why it’s interesting: Silicon Valley companies are stepping in where government now seems unable to tread, charting a grand vision for public works not heard from Washington in decades. Their role in public policy is only set to grow.
2. Online universities
Online universities are on the rise as education costs soar, and the traditional university system comes under fire from leading Silicon Valley voices such as PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who compared elite education to “a Studio 54 nightclub that’s got an incredibly long line outside and a very small number of people let inside.”
But today’s ambitious distance-learning projects are not the massive open online courses (MOOCs) and scattershot efforts of a decade ago. The four-year undergraduate institution Minerva Schools, which founder Ben Nelson calls “the first elite American university to be launched in a century,” combines an online education delivery platform called the Active Learning Forum with a rigorous global experience that will see students spend time in seven major global cities on four continents before graduation.
“More and more students, especially at the elite end, are realizing, ‘I can get my basic learning on the internet and then have this collection of experiences around the globe that enhances who I am as a person,’” as Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, put it to the New York Times.
Why it’s interesting: The Minerva approach allows students to allocate limited financial resources toward experiences that cannot be reproduced online, and reflects an attitude that has led younger generations to prioritize spending on experiences over high-end goods.
3. Tech naturalism
As the Innovation Group found in the New Natural trend report, technology and nature are no longer at odds with each other. Technology, in fact, is helping consumers “naturalize” their lives.
We see examples of this in personal care, where a new toothbrush enabled by nanotechnology helps people avoid using toothpaste. Shown at Milan Design Week, the toothbrush by Japanese designer Kosho Ueshima has bristles coated in nano-sized mineral ions that are activated by water. Makers say that the ions remove stains and create a protective coating for tooth enamel. Women are also turning to technology to prevent pregnancy without the use of pharmaceuticals. A series of apps that monitor fertility, including Kindara, Glow and Ovuline, help women calculate their fertility levels based on daily measurements of temperature and other biological indicators.
For more examples, see our full trend report, “New Natural: The Next Generation of Conscious Consumerism.”
Why it’s interesting: Consumers do not see a contradiction between a preference for “natural” choices and a pick-and-choose approach to technology. Successful brands help them navigate these boundaries.
4. 3D landscape scanning
3D scanning is being pushed to its limits by a new wave of creative technologists who are using it to scan and visualize full landscapes. Creative studio ScanLAB specializes in digitizing “real world events or places,” producing 3D scans of environments using advanced laser technology that measures a million points of data per second. This allows ScanLAB to build a model of any space using millions of little dots that are precise to within a millimeter. In 2015, the company worked with the BBC on the show Rome’s Invisible City, creating a detailed rendering of Rome’s subterranean architecture of tunnels, chambers and passageways, helping to illuminate the role of infrastructure in the ancient Roman metropolis. The technology company Velodyne is making similar scanning technology that could help vehicles navigate the surface of the moon or Mars, and a puck-sized device that can add the capability to drones for under $8,000.
Why it’s interesting: With far-ranging applications for research and design, 3D-scanning technology is also falling in cost, and could soon become accessible to creatives and media artists.
5. Self-healing materials
The prospect of self-healing technology speaks to anyone who’s made do with a cracked smartphone screen. More researchers are taking the possibility seriously and prototyping a new wave of self-healing material innovations. A team at the University of Bristol, UK, announced in June 2015 that it had created airplane wings that could repair themselves in mid-air, and was even contacted by L’Oréal, which registered interest in developing self-healing nail polish. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London are creating self-healing protein scaffolds for growing tissue, while at TU Delft in the Netherlands, scientists have created bio-concrete that heals itself using bacteria.
Why it’s interesting: Drawing inspiration from the self-healing properties of the body, researchers imagine that the materials of the future will resemble living tissue more than static objects, offering a new and inspiring way to look at technology.
6. Computer-chip organs
While our capacity to analyze information about health and our bodies has raced ahead, the process of testing and bringing drugs to market remains agonizingly slow. But a new category of device called “organs-on-chips” could speed up the process significantly. The tiny devices, produced by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, mimic the structure and function of different human organs, allowing the effects of drugs to be tested rapidly and monitored easily through microscopes. Chips can also be joined together to simulate the larger human body. While the technology is at an early stage, it is already inspiring people beyond the pharmaceutical field, winning the 2015 Design of the Year award from London’s Design Museum.
Why it’s interesting: Innovations in pharmaceutical testing rarely capture the public imagination, but organs-on-chips are an elegant and potentially game-changing development in the field.
7. Sustainability nagging
It started with fitness, then it was stress, diabetes, and a whole manner of health concerns. Now the latest wearable tech concept is a band that keeps track of carbon emissions. Worldbeing is an app and wearable wristband, made of recycled electrical components, that helps consumers stick to daily carbon-footprint targets. “In the same way that fitness bands are an inward look at how you’re doing, a band is an outward look at how you’re doing,” designer Benjamin Hubert, whose studio Layer is behind the concept, told the New Statesman. “It’s really flipping that idea that health isn’t just about you, it’s about everyone around you.” The wristband already connects to smart home hubs to monitor home electricity usage, and would eventually integrate with a larger array of devices.
Why it’s interesting: While this particular design is unlikely to achieve mass adoption, it points toward a future in which wearable technology will measure not just health, but other behaviors as well.
8. Questioning tech conventions: New search, end of email
After years of frenetic growth, email, social networking and search engines have reached maturity. These backbones of the information economy are now being reconsidered for digital-native consumers and in the context of broader human needs.
“Google was once the miracle of the age: now people take it for granted,” says Rowland Manthorpe, associate editor at Wired UK. “It’s very linear; it can’t tell you what you didn’t know you wanted to ask. As people become more aware of this, a cultural movement is growing up in which people look to wander and discover rather than go directly to the thing they already knew about.”
Metadrift, a project by Royal College of Art student Wai-Cheun Cheung, exemplifies this shift in thinking. It imagines information not as a list of topics in decreasing order of relevancy, but as a 3D forest of sortable structures, with bookmarks existing not as items on a list but as “spatial locations in the landscape.” The design helps reintroduce serendipity into the internet experience.
Email, too, is falling by the wayside as people turn to more informal mediums, even for business communications. Consumers are increasingly bypassing email, search and web altogether, going directly to apps for everything from hailing a car to getting a restaurant recommendation. Services such as SupportKit now allow businesses to integrate messaging directly within their own apps, so they can communicate more directly with customers and avoid sending them into another messaging app or email program.
Why it’s interesting: People are looking for more serendipity from interactions with technology and a more direct connection with brands and services.
9. New directions for fashion and technology
Moving beyond wearable tech, an exploration of the creative possibilities of fusing fashion, innovation and technology will happen throughout 2016. First stop is the Manus x Machina exhibition, sponsored by Apple, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Launching in May 2016, it will focus on technology’s impact on fashion and “how designers are reconciling the handmade and the machine-made in the creation of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear.”
“Fashion and technology are inextricably connected, more so now than ever before,” says Thomas P Campbell, director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It is therefore timely to examine the roles that the handmade and the machine-made have played in the creative process. Often presented as oppositional, this exhibition proposes a new view in which the hand and the machine are mutual and equal protagonists.”
As part of the exhibition, the Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries will present a series of “in process” workshops, including a 3D-printing workshop where visitors will witness the creation of 3D-printed garments during the course of the exhibition. It will include works from designers such as technical visionaries Hussein Chalayan and Iris van Herpen.
Why it’s interesting: Tech conferences, blogs and magazines continue to focus on wearable tech from a functional aspect, but from a creative aspect we are just beginning. Already Google and Levi’s are collaborating on connected fabrication, stepping beyond bracelets and bands to wrap technical functions into everyday clothing. Increasingly technology and science will be used to push the boundaries of creativity in clothing, and technical functions will be integrated into our tailoring and normal accessories.
10. The automation paradox
The growth of artificial intelligence is raising profound questions about the future of the labor force. Some of the latest authors to explore this are Richard and Daniel Susskind, who examine the growing influence of automation in our society in their August 2015 book The Future of the Professions. The book argues that even skilled professions such as law, accounting, architecture and medicine will be profoundly changed in the 21st century by advancing levels of automation.
The “automation paradox,” a phenomenon described by systems engineers, notes an interesting aspect of our shift toward automated systems. The more we implement them, the easier everyday tasks become. At the same time, however, the number of people with the knowledge and skills to solve problems if and when they arise diminishes over time. How many corner mechanics know how to fix corrupt software in a self-driving car?
Why it’s interesting: As artificial intelligence, big data and cognitive technology advance, more people are pondering what this will mean for consumer behavior and society at large. The Innovation Group Europe explores the complex dynamics of these dynamics in its forthcoming 2016 report “Remote Control.”