Six high-tech industries for 2020 and beyond

To tackle unemployment, unleash human talent and end global poverty, industry needs to embrace big ideas - here are six.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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In a report published in May, the consultancy McKinsey outlined 12 ‘potentially economically disruptive technologies’. Aside from naming robotic care for the elderly – an important development that I’ll come on to – it rounds up all the familiar suspects: mobile, the cloud, 3D printing, driverless cars, shale and renewable energy, and genomics.

But if we hope to tackle world poverty and unemployment, as well as the challenges of caring for an aging population, we need bigger ambitions. Here are six industries which are not make-work affairs, but which respond to genuine human needs and unleash new talents. These are industries which have the potential to change the whole world, and especially developing economies.

1) An energy-generating New Carbon Infrastructure

The world needs more energy. More and more oil is being discovered, but Asia’s growing demand for cars alone poses a considerable challenge. So let’s have some serious chemical innovation. We need to make artificial fuels from the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere or being produced by industry and energy production.

In Stockton-on-Tees, Air Fuel Synthesis Ltd has made a stab at turning atmospheric CO2 into petrol. This kind of air capture will be expensive. Yet carbon capture and storage (CCS) around power stations – especially gas-fired ones – looks relatively safe and has begun larger-scale operation.

Let’s not put a high price on carbon in the vain hope that CCS retrofits of old fossil-fired power plants will then become profitable. Instead, let’s find the money to equip all new power stations with CCS, and put the resulting CO2 to work with the rest of the world’s energy-creating New Carbon Infrastructure – biofuels included.

2) Let’s hear it for pipes

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, ‘strategic’ irrigation could revolutionise agriculture and cut poverty. Agriculture is by far the world’s largest user of water. It needs secure, reliable pipes – like the two-way, 87km, 1.93m diameter, 13-tonnes-a-section waterpipe they’ve laid underground in Victoria, Australia. That pipe links to a desalination plant, but nuclear power stations, including tomorrow’s Small Modular Reactors and the day after tomorrow’s thorium reactors, will also need pipes. So will electricity and IT grids, and the world’s new sources of oil and gas. And from the ocean floor, ‘deep salt’ deposits of oil and gas, and maybe even methane hydrates, will be piped ashore. At present, pipe systems are pretty primitive and prone to leaks. What the world needs is a network of pipes as strong as the internet, fully laid and monitored by robots.

3) Clothes get clever, comfortable, cleaner

As Rania Hafez pointed out previously on spiked, the collapse of a garment factory in Greater Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013 has highlighted the backward conditions that surround the world’s textile and apparel sector. It’s time IT transformed that dinosaur sector.

Clothes could be electronic displays, both supple and washable. Their IT-based sensors, non-paranoid medical apps and energy management devices could make them comfortable companions, whether in snowstorms or on sweaty buses. Oh, and the cotton in them should clean itself.

4) Mass-manufactured housing

In China, Broad Sustainable Building wants to assemble apartments from prefabricated modules, taking just three months to build what it calls Sky City – a 202-storey complex that would house 30,000 people. But is that enough? Even without attacking deteriorated and substandard housing, the world must build about 4,000 houses an hour if it is to meet the demand from its one billion slum-dwellers and its increasing population.

Everyone needs spacious, well-insulated, air-conditioned and upgradable homes. Coupled with serious land reform, the mass manufacture of homes could humanise the planet, genuinely rebalance economies, and finally haul the construction sector into the twenty-first century.

5) Robots for old people

Robots have still to conquer the world, but those made by companies such as Kuka, Germany, now operate with – rather than instead of – workers in car factories. Meanwhile, service robots for old people are in preparation. From Bedford, Massachusetts, iRobot’s Ava, still only a concept, is a Terminator-meets-hospital-tech development platform on which to build medical apps. It might one day help in ‘caregiver support’.

Meanwhile, in coastal Nanto, Japan, Intelligent System Co makes stroke-worthy seal-pup robots. At $5,000 each, Paro is designed to help raise the spirits of older people and it is now poised for large-scale trials.

6) Cold storage, better food supply chains

Food has stayed fresh over long distances since Gustavus Swift invented the refrigerated railroad car in 1880. Today, better railways, roads and food storage could rid India of many of the losses it endures in food distribution. Aided by satellites, food and drink need to keep cool from farm to plate. So, from lab to lips, do ‘biological’ pharmaceuticals. In transport and logistics, ‘stay chilled’ could actually mean something useful in decades to come.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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Topics Science & Tech


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