A Disruptive Dozen

No company that wants to have a future can afford to slight the breakthrough opportunity,” Peter Drucker wrote in Managing for Results. “This typically is the opportunity to make the future happen.”

Drucker liked to point to Xerox, which invested some $40 million of borrowed money in order to come up with the photocopier, that staple of the office. Profits were massive.

A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute attempts to identify which areas of technological innovation are likeliest, over the next couple of decades, to upend what we know today. The team of authors came up with 12 technologies, described in the following terms:

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  1. Mobile Internet
  2. Automation of knowledge work
  3. Internet of Things
  4. Cloud technology
  5. Advanced robotics
  6. Autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles
  7. Next-generation genomics
  8. Energy storage
  9. 3D printing
  10. Advanced materials
  11. Advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery
  12. Renewable energy

As the report’s authors note, technological innovations can be as much of a threat to business as an opportunity. That’s why they are often called “disruptive technologies,” a term coined by Harvard’s Clayton M. Christensen, and it’s also why they exemplify what was called “creative destruction,” a term coined by Drucker’s favorite economist, Joseph Schumpeter.

Drucker recounted that innovation used to be viewed as so disruptive and mysterious to most economists that they didn’t even consider it in their models. “Innovation belonged in the category of ‘outside catastrophes’ like earthquakes, climate or war, which, everybody knew, have profound influence on the economy but are not part of economics,” he wrote in The Frontiers of Management. By contrast, “Schumpeter insisted that . . . innovation—that is, entrepreneurship that moves resources from old and obsolescent to new and more productive employments—is the very essence of economics and most certainly of a modern economy.”

The McKinsey report’s authors also aver, despite having drawn up a list, that the “history of technology is littered with breathless stories of breakthroughs that never quite materialized” and that the “hype machine can be equally misleading in what it chooses to ignore.”

Drucker understood this well. As he wrote in Toward the Next Economics, innovation often comes at you from left field, and “major technological ‘breakthroughs’ very often, if not usually, originate in a field of science or knowledge that is different from that in which the old technology had its knowledge foundations.”

What do you think will be the most disruptive technologies of the next decade—and why?