3 Drivers for the Next Decade; and a Look into 2020

Traditionally I look into the next year after the turn towards the new year. This year is a bit different for a lot of people as we are entering a new decade. So is at least the common feeling. What are the roaring twenties of the 21st century? It is the theme for a lot of thinkers (I like this one of Kara Swisher to name just one). However it remains interesting to have a peek into 2020 too and see how it will contribute to bigger changes.

But good to start with a look back to the last decade. Many is said, and I think there is not a discussion on what is the most changing development in tech, and also stretching beyond: the developing of the smart phone as center of everything. I think here it is not so much about features and sizes, but on how it changed the role of tech in our world. More than the introduction of the smart phone in its current form back in 2007 almost simultaneously by Apple and Android, the real breakthrough was the app-system that caters endless possibilities for makers to create new functions for the wearable technology, and the adding of the GPS made into a reality device, a link of our real life and digital life, and that is what turned out to be key. That was the driver for new transformational services, that the phone is now the hub of a huge knowledge graph the internet was already before and our real-life. And that can be linked to the impact of tech now in society, data ecosystem and the root for the current techlash.

In sketching developments in Internet of Things — one of my focus areas of the last decade for sure — I think that the phone is often too much seen as the IoT device in itself, and that this triggers uninteresting concepts where the object gets a remote control in the form of an app. That is however changing. The objects become more intelligent, more part of a product-service system with the phone only as connector to that system, and the first iteration to the edge-computing that became popular the last years. We only just now see the objects become more smart themselves, intelligence is becoming embedded in the objects, think AirPods as poster child. Keep this in mind for the look into the next decade.

So what really changed the last decade is the place of tech in our real-life. Computing was a tool used for specific functions, first word-processing and then with the first iteration of the world wide web as library and communication service. Now we have the possibility to create an app for everything we do. If it is navigating or taking pictures, that glass slab is the center of our personal universe. I don’t know if Steve Jobs had foreseen this when he introduced the iPhone as an integration of three functions: the phone, internet communication device and music player. The real power was the role of the phone as infrastructure for services.

We now see peak smart phone. At least in the form factor. A glass slab to interaction, with computational powerhouse and connectivity. It will be optimized, it will be foldable. It will in essence return to a single purpose device, the window to the system behind it. That system is becoming independent from the smart phone, a development started with the AirPods, HomePods, watches as intelligent touchpoints. Not limited as an Apple-centric development, Google is building a strong foundational infrastructure with services like Duplex and computational photography, and shifting towards more quality in the devices to stimulate different valuations of products that just features. The looks are becoming important.

This will continue, and I think a shift in the relation with the technology we use is key for the coming decade. AI is far away from artificial general intelligence (AGI), robots will not fully taking over humans, that will take more time, and more important, it makes no sense to strive for that. We will extend our human capabilities with technology on a deeper personal level. You can say that in the last decade the phone mainly made the services more intelligent facing towards we as users, in the coming decade the focus will be the human facing outwards. I think there are three drivers:

  1. Boosted humanity. Technology is extending human capabilities. From electric last mile mobility to power to reason. We see also how daily life is now monitored continuously and planned rigorously. This is a feeding ground for the urge of improving/boosting. Doing Bodytec gym, etc. Even developments in DNA sequencing is a form of boosting humans by making it able to create better medicine.
  2. Relations human-nonhumans. In the use of the technology we will not anymore see it as a tool, as a slave if you wish. We will build relations with the intelligent partners, value what they can achieve and respect how they bring a reflection to our own life choices. However the starting point will be boosting the human capabilities, the practice is one of mutual understanding.
  3. Living together with pal-tech. Follow through with this we will (later) not only have this attitude in working together as a relation, we will allow the tech as part of our human systems. First in cities. Cities of things with things as citizens, the research program at TU Delft we run is linked to this.

Describing the third driver feels as if the artificial life, the nonhuman fellow inhabitants could be taking over, a fear that is sometimes expressed in AI ethics. We need to start understanding what the roles are. The first step here is to lose the meme that tech is neutral. We are still the designers of the tech, although we see that tech will become a creative force here too. Like the Spotify design process where the AI is part of the design team initiating new ideas for products instead of being only the ingredient of the end product.

It will be a super interesting decade we will live. But we need to be aware of doing it right. Breaking the power of the big players as the possibilities of an implementation that does not stimulate but harm freedom of living together with the tech, what a system based on the surveillance capitalism creates. A public stack could work, based on open source governance. We need a similar system as the app-store did for mobile; a way to cater creators and makers to build the partnering technology. And based on more human-based values, not economic values. We want objects that live longer. As a necessity to become more sustainable. Without losing the options to update. Fashion that adepts, cars that update, etc. We like to keep our stuff up to date. Phones were fashion items but are now longer around. The inside remains changing.

Looking into one year ahead, we will see in devices that the phones do not change fundamentally. They become more basic in the outside and more intelligent in the inside. The intelligence will be opened up for developers even more, hopefully that is the step Apple can take in the next OS-stack. The AR glasses are not so important, or foldables. More interesting is what is happening in the integration of the intelligence in the infrastructure. The alliance of the big players for an open IoT stack is here a first sign; in 2020 more examples will be introduced, compare IKEA Tradfri. The big boom will be later as the infrastructure is more stable.

Same goes for mobility. As the mobility revolution in the beginning of the 20th century drove developments, the unbundling of physical functions (cars) and infrastructure (engines, software) with the acceleration of electric cars, but also bikes and last mile vehicles (boosted boards, scooters) will continue and yielding for next forms of mobility services in this century.

There is of course happening more than tech. A lot of politics, geo-political changes, risks of serious crashes in both US and China leading to new kinds of internal conflicts. Tech plays here a great role too however. Think only on the surveillance systems in China and the counter attacks by the a new kind of ad-hoc demonstrating.

So to wrap up; we shift from a decade of empowering products and services with computational capabilities towards empowering humans with boosting human capabilities on all levels. For that we will see a further shift from new gadget-like devices towards integrated infrastructures in all things we use. To begin in creating tech that we can modify and hack into our own pals. Where we will build a new type of relations, based on hopefully more human-driven economical systems. Let that be our new-decade resolution. Have a good 2020(s)!

Published by

iskandr

Iskander Smit is an innovation director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting professor at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab, and chairman and organizer of ThingsCon Netherlands.

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