It goes without saying that the internet, the World Wide Web and digitisation have proved revolutionary for business. However, the digital revolution is not a one-off event, but an evolutionary process that requires firms to constantly review their operations. Advances in digital technologies are potentially disruptive to established firms as they open opportunities for new entrants to markets.

Almost every advance is billed as a breakthrough, and the list of “next big things” grows ever longer. Not every emerging technology will revolutionise the business landscape, but some do have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, and rearrange social values and norms.

A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry. Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology in his 1997 best-selling book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. Christensen separates new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

Using real-world examples to illustrate his point, Christensen demonstrated how it is not unusual for big corporations to dismiss the value of a disruptive technology, because it does not reinforce current company goals, only to be unexpectedly impacted as the technology matures, gains a larger audience and market share and threatens the status quo.

Examples of significant disruptive technologies in the 20th century:
  • The personal computer displaced the typewriter changing the way people worked and communicated. The Windows operating system was instrumental in the rapid development of the personal computing industry in the 1990s. Personal computing disrupted the television industry, as well as a great number of other activities.
  • E-mail transformed communication, largely displacing letter-writing and disrupting the postal and greeting card industries.
  • Mobile phones disrupted the telecom industry and smart phones disrupted personal computers
  • The laptop computer and mobile computing made a mobile workforce possible and allowed people to connect to corporate networks and collaborate from anywhere. In many organizations, laptops replaced desktops.
Disruptive technologies for the next decade

Embedded sensors: low-cost micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), including accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, make it easy and cheap to embed sensors into physical product, fuelling explosive growth for the Internet of Things. As the price of MEMS technology falls further, it will be cost-effective to add them to even the most mundane objects, including clothing and smart fabrics.

Wearable technologies: The Internet of You: New body-technologies are poised to revolutionise the healthcare sector, especially for aging populations. Embedded technologies monitor and offer feedback for an expanded range of vital signs and new metrics, such as pulse, blood pressure, sleep environment, weight and even glucose levels. Other wearable technologies include fitness products, smart watches, and internet connected eyeglasses.

Exponential Energy: Alternative energy technologies are becoming better, cheaper, and smaller, such as innovations in the use of solar power and improved storage batteries for charging other devices; in many cases without the need for cables and plugs. Mobile rechargers are being embedded into smartphone and tablet cases and Ford, has already demonstrated its C-Max Solar Energi, which can recharge its battery using solar panels on the roof of the vehicle instead of plugging in.

Energy Storage: Solar generates its electricity when most households are empty or have limited demand. Saving that electricity for later will dramatically offset consumption prices. Storage, combined with smart metering and demand response, will significantly reduce the amount of stranded capacity and hence reduce wasted cost on an electricity system.

Driverless vehicles: Car manufacturers have been using technology to make vehicles more autonomous for years, including everything from anti-lock brakes to automatic parking. However, totally automated vehicles are already in production. Mercedes-Benz, for example, are using miniature cameras positioned around its demonstration vehicle to manage traffic lights, intersections, pedestrians and other vehicles. The real constraint now on expanding automated driving is legal.  Governments around the world are grappling with appropriate new rules for testing and deploying these new technologies.

Other impressive developments in autonomous vehicles, include lightweight drone aircraft with future applications in public safety, environmental monitoring, package delivery and agriculture.

4-D Printing: 3-D printers are used to print out smart materials that can then shape or assemble themselves. The concept is still in its infancy, but the technology could help people build equipment in extreme conditions, or allow medical devices to construct themselves once they’re implanted.

Digital Banking: Mobile banking is set to take off around the world, with a forecasted 86% by 2016. Although the largest volumes will be in developed markets, the greatest opportunities for new entrants lie in emerging markets thanks to the relative lack of established financial institutions.

Digital Marketing: The digital market uses and generates massive amounts of data and it is this data that differentiates digital marketing from traditional offline marketing. The result is a highly personalized experience for a consumer across all channels in an experience that the prospective or current customer appreciates and they in turn encourage through greater access to their personal data.

Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy involves training the immune system to both better recognize cancer cells and attack them so that cancer becomes nothing more than a chronic condition. Chemotherapy or even newer oral drugs have a powerful initial effect on tumour shrinkage, but the durability of these responses are typically very short, after which the tumour begins to grow again and starts to spread (metastasize). In contrast immunotherapy can last a decade or longer, due to the induction of an ongoing immunological memory, targeting cancer cells for an indeterminate length of time and making it a potential tool to transform a significant percentage of cancers into something akin to a chronic disease. It is estimated that two-thirds of Western cancer incidence could be successfully treated with immunotherapy.

Robots: Increasingly capable robots or robotic tools, with enhanced “senses,” dexterity, and intelligence, will  take on tasks once thought too delicate or uneconomical to automate. These technologies can also generate significant societal benefits, including robotic surgical systems that make procedures less invasive.