Turning the threats of new technology into new business models

At an unusual panel at The Economist's Human Potential conference, speakers shared thoughts on technologies that threaten entire industries, from retail to education--and how to embrace them.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

NEW YORK -- Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the hype around "technological disruptions," especially when attending a big-think conference? Feel confused by the buzzwords thrown around at these events, such as the "Internet of Things"? And what about the buzzwords of yesteryear, from "crowd sourcing" to "flash sales"? Are they merely trendy terms, or do they ever have longevity? Do new social media, mobile, and robotics technologies threaten nearly every industry--from retail to healthcare to education?

In an entertaining and unusual panel titled "The Net Effect: Technology and the future of work," presented at The Economist's Ideas Economy: Human Potential conference in New York on September 27, all of the concepts above--and more--came up in some form. It was a wide-reaching, ambitious, and potentially chaotic topic, with a seemingly random, unrelated group of speakers: Brian David Johnson, futurist at Intel; Alexis Maybank, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Gilt Groupe; Shaifali Puri, executive director of Scientists without Borders; and Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva.

But with a highly unusual structure that Johnson described as "speed interviewing, like speed dating," the panel successfully kept the packed auditorium paying attention. It was clear that audience members were even discussing some of the onstage comments with each other while the panelists were still speaking.

At first, The Economist's Management Editor and Schumpeter columnist Adrian Wooldridge predictably introduced the first panelist, Johnson, but after he sat down, the other three seats remained empty. Wooldridge engaged in conversation with Johnson, then left the stage. Johnson remained, and Maybank came on stage, to be interviewed by Johnson. And so on. The "whirligig" structure, as Wooldridge described the panel, kept the conversations unexpected and lively, pairing speakers who were from disparate industries.

Creative choreography aside, the conversations stretched toward many different directions as it attempted to address such a wide spectrum of fields--and succeeded in being concise and broad all at once. The speakers drew fascinating and possibly unexpected insights from one another. I'm not sure if these insights were clearly related, but the event organizers' imaginative solution for dealing with such a wide-ranging topic worked. The speakers and audience were clearly engaged.

Here are some of the most compelling thoughts from the speakers--which don't necessarily address the future of work, but address the future of technology and its influence on healthcare, retail, scientific research, and university education, specifically.

ADDING MORE CARE IN HEALTHCARE: Johnson addressed the healthcare industry and its relationship to computing. He stated that in coming years, there are going to be "quite a lot of people who need quite a lot of care," and when wearable computers and sensors will make it possible to monitor patients at all times, "we can act very quickly" when they are sick or injured.

He added that new technologies can be used "to have deeper relationships with people," and might not threaten but enhance current models of healthcare. Patients might not need to physically go to doctors' offices or hospitals in the future when they can be treated remotely, thanks to an ongoing stream of physical data read by computers. But doctors will see that new remote medical technologies will allow them "not only to monitor, but also to connect" with patients. In other words, they may provide better care and have more satisfied patients.

REDESIGNING THE RETAIL INDUSTRY: Maybank talked about the influence of mobile phones, robotics, and social media in the retail world. Gilt Groupe saw revenues from mobile-phone sales grow from zero percent of the business to 30 percent in one year. "We had to rethink our business," Maybank said. "How our information is presented…[in the future] we will be predominantly doing sales on smart phones…This affects the products we buy and display, because we consider mobile shoppers when choosing merchandise."

Maybank added that Gilt Groupe has had to come up with a new type of customer service strategy, one that doesn't just involve responding to incoming complaints or other feedback via emails or phone calls, but also actively seeks and addresses commentary on social media sites or Twitter as well. She also discussed how the company relies on robots to help find merchandise quickly in a very large Gilt Groupe warehouse to more efficiently fulfill orders.

SPEEDING UP SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: Puri then discussed how Scientists without Borders effectively crowdsources scientific solutions and research on global development-related challenges. "We borrowed from the open-source software movement. We seek answers from people motivated their by desire to know, by their altruism," she said. "They don’t think or worry about intellectual-property protection. Their incentive is to try to be creative." She cited an online challenge on the Scientists without Borders site: "How to deliver folic acid to the poorest women in the world?" In 30 days, more than 60 solutions were offered--much faster than the timetables expected in big pharmaceutical companies. The winner? Triple-fortified salt, containing folic acid.

CREATING RIVALS TO THE IVY LEAGUE: Nelson took the stage next, and offered his views on creating a university from scratch, online, that would service the world's brightest students and could compete with the Ivy Leagues in terms of its quality of education. By starting a university, "we get to rethink lots of conventions. We can reform admissions processes, pedagogy, and curricula…rethink the student experience," he said. The models Minerva follows are actually in the physical realm: the University of Chicago's curriculum, dating to the 1940s and 50s, which promoted rigorous analyses and asks students to learn how to argue all sides of an issue; Benjamin Franklin's idea of blending the "practical and ornamental" at the University of Pennsylvania, which requires learning that can be applied to accomplishing a goal rather than exist for learning's sake; and Caltech's ruthlessness when it comes to grading. "There is no grade inflation there," Nelson said. "That ensures that the quality of education rises up."

MOVING BEYOND NEW TECH AS A THREAT: To conclude the session, Wooldridge returned to the stage, this time as the subject of Nelson's questioning. He drew an analogy between the U.S. car industry before Toyota rose up as a competitor and the U.S. educational system, to illustrate how mighty American industries should do all they can to avoid resting on their laurels as nimble foreign competitors may suddenly pop up to threaten their success.

As you can see, the panel was all over the place--and engagingly so. In the context of the panel's focus on new technologies, though, and Wooldridge's closing thoughts, it would seem as if the biggest challenge to complacent Western businesses--including newer ones, such as Gilt Groupe--may not be from other nations, but may very well be new technologies. The panel seemed to suggest that executives who wish to gain buzz in any field, from chip-making to retail to pharmaceuticals to education, are wise to quickly figure out how to harness innovations in inventive ways to stay relevant. This means, as the panelists illustrated, to be buzzworthy, it's important to not only keep up with buzzwords; it's crucial to figure out how to push the concepts behind them into new uses.

Image: Randy Pertiet/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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