Get ready for the coming world order
Sep 30 2013
Around the same time, simultaneously oil and gas extraction and refining technologies were pioneered, diesel and petrol engines were invented, and electric motor became ubiquitous. The world was changed — abundant power and energy, cheap mass transportation, and spawning of new massive manufacturing industries that generated economies of scale and global employment. Capitalism had truly come of age and that was the time when the US started challenging the colonial powers economically, financially, and militarily. That was the time when Thomas Edison founded General Electric and reportedly said, “We will make electric light so cheap that only the wealthy will be able to afford to burn candles.” This paradigm-busting wave of individual technologies created a unique interdependent social-ecosystem.
But technology has an inherent property — the very solution it provides to a problem also raises a set of fresh problems for the future. The era of energy abundance using carbon-fuel and fossil-based sources has its limits, which has pushed governments and companies to invest in newer set of technologies. There was much hype of hydrogen —world’s most abundant element — as a limitless source of fuel around 2005, but then it proved to be mere hype and loud-thinking.
The world is fast arriving at a point where non-conventional and renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and nuclear are competing well with the traditional fossil fuels in terms of power generation costs (notwithstanding the boom in production of tight oil, such as shale gas, especially in the US). The costs per unit of power from solar photo-voltaic cells have fallen rapidly in the past couple of years. Scientists are now testing a host of new advanced mega-materials such as perovskite semiconductors and graphene that can improve the efficiency of conversion rate of sunlight into power to much beyond the current 20 per cent. Already thin-film based solar cells are losing out to crystalline silicon cells because of higher efficiency, longer life and lower installation costs. Graphene is a single-atom layered allotrope of carbon that is supposed to be one of the strongest, lightest weight, and best electricity and heat conducting mediums. Once the new technologies become integrated, the world will see a paradigm shift similar to that experienced in late 19th century.
In parallel, the universal availability of information has already changed our lives. We now have almost free information, literally on our fingertips. In a matter of few milliseconds by just speaking or entering a keyword on our mobile phones, tablets and computers, one can access streaming videos and data about everything and anything. Concurrently, the hardware and software that processes, stores, and creates the algorithms for information are experiencing a revolution at their own level. On one hand, the devices are becoming inexpensive and consume minimal power (almost zero), on the other, powerful and lightweight batteries can go on and on for weeks together without recharging (for example, Kindle e-reader). As a direct offshoot of open and free information, massive online open courses (MOOCs) are already offered free by many leading universities giving opportunity to students located anywhere in the world to read and study their courses at his or her own convenience (the ‘flipped classroom’ concept). Instead of being tethered to a class, a professor can now simultaneously teach lakhs of students globally. For the researcher, interdisciplinary learning and collaboration across streams and disciplines becomes possible.
We are arriving at a similar cusp of multiple-technologies led revolution that will irrevocably transform the world for the better. Glass technologies are being tried that render the material almost unbreakable, scratchproof, having own ‘memory’, and which has the capacity to display information at 3D and multiple levels. Cloud technology is bringing Big Data into human hand allowing complex pattern recognition and giving capability of advance information about likelihood of events and insights into human psychology. Three-dimensional printing once perfected will bring everything to hand including food, materials, and goods. The machines have already been tested for making (eatable) gourmet pizzas, designer cups and plates, and models of housing architecture. All this is available at incredibly cheap prices.
In this kind of world, the difference between manufacturing and services industries and real and virtual world disappears. In that case, what would be the differentiators for firms in the marketplace? Mainly trustworthiness, and customer feedback and scores! It will be an interesting world to live in.
An era of limitless and almost free energy and information will be the biggest democratising force the world has ever seen. It will spawn new convergences and new interdisciplinary industries mainly in the services. It will result in equal opportunities for all irrespective of geography, gender, and race. An exciting world of creativity, imagination and innovation beckons human race!
(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)