Despite fears of economic disaster from both left and right, companies have continued to innovate in recent years. The amazing thing about innovation is its ability to not only create more jobs, but to change the very way we live, and therefore create entirely new kinds of jobs.
How will we live differently by the time the next generation comes of age? Here are just a few developments from companies that are literally changing the world and generating opportunity:
1. A New Use for Your Guest Bedroom
Let’s start with something already in full swing: Airbnb is democratizing the hotel industry. The company connects travelers who are looking for a place to stay with people who happen to have them, all over the world. This means more convenience for the traveler, and a lower barrier to entry for the smalltime landlord.
2. The Smart Home
The lights brighten as you drive up, the garage opens automatically, the front door locks as soon as you enter, and you hear your favorite playlist start up before you’ve put the groceries down. That’s life made possible by SmartThings, one of many companies working to create a more seamless integration between physical space and digital capabilities.
3. Clean Water Everywhere
Where there is water, there is life. Most of us living in developed cities take access to clean water for granted, but it is a problem that continues to limit human mobility. That might change through the work of Water-Gen, a company working on ways to create clean drinking water from nearly any source—including, literally, thin air. Their focus is military solutions, but their products will enable new approaches to poverty, mobility, and independence.
4. Digital Money
There are a lot of new things happening in the digital money space. Money has been primarily digital since credit cards went mainstream, but there has been little innovation since. Now companies like Square, Dwolla and Coin are moving us into the future of exchange. Square turns any iPhone or iPad into a point-of-sale system. Dwolla allows payments to be made to anyone via a simple email, tweet, or text. And for those who still prefer plastic, Coin consolidates all of your cards into one. And let’s not forget Bitcoin, which is not a company, but is a true digital currency. Its distinguishing characteristic is its complete detachment from government regulation, which many early adopters believe will establish Bitcoin as a new gold standard. However, as its real value is still very much in question—and really, nothing is beyond the bounds of regulation—one should invest carefully.
5. Less Garbage, More Energy
The old adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is more than a saying, it’s an economic reality—and one that Harvest Power has taken to the literal extreme. This company is building systems that turn organic waste into energy and agriculture products, helping to address environmental concerns by both reducing what we put into it, and increasing what we get out of it.
6. 3D Printing
This technology has remained primarily industrial, but is in the early stages of becoming a common home-use product. Read my post on this last year. As material capabilities improve, the digital universe of printable products expands, and it becomes easier to create new items or scan existing ones, the price point—now under $1,000 and dropping—is going to look more and more attractive. Expect 3D printers in every educational and medical facility within a few years. 3D Systems and Makerbot are bringing this technology home.
7. Lighting As God Intended
The federal ban on what used to be standard incandescent light bulbs was a display of political absurdity. Their substitutes are more efficient, but unattractive and toxic. Enter the LED lightbulb. Technically, the “bulb” part is merely a design feature meant to give a sense of familiarity to consumers. The future is all in the Light-Emitting Diode, a technology that has been around for decades, but has finally met the right conditions for mass adoption. Here’s why: the brightness, tone, and color of LEDs are completely programmable from a mobile app. As if the ability to dream up any lighting scenario whatsoever is not appealing enough, LEDs are also much more durable and efficient than fluorescent bulbs and require no warm-up time—they are at full brightness the moment you turn them on. Check out what Philips is doing with hue.
8. Driverless Cars
The reality of cars that actually drive themselves will soon be upon us. Several major car companies plan to release partially automated features in the next few years, with nearly full automation expected by 2020. Israeli company Mobileye and Google are major leaders in this technology. While the obvious benefit is less time driving and more time getting work done, it is reasonable to expect automated vehicles to reduce accidents, insurance costs, and the age at which teens stop making chauffeurs of their parents.
9. The Evolution of TV
Most young people can already see where TV is heading—Netflix, Amazon, and others are pioneering a subscription-based, on-demand television model. But that is only the first step. Really, what we are witnessing is the end of television as we know it, and merely the expansion of the internet through a familiar in-home delivery system. This means there is no end to the kind of content that can be readily available. It also means that start-up media companies can gain independent access to mass audiences. The variety of news outlets we find online, for example, can be replicated on TV. Just as podcasts emerged when audio went fully digital, the new model of television will enable low-budget productions unlimited viewer potential. For the free exchange of ideas, this is a significant step forward.
10. A Revolution in Preventative Healthcare
Gene sequencing on a mass scale would enable scientists to measure, analyze, and predict a broad variety of health problems. Costs have limited the use of such technology, but Oxford Nanofore Technologies is about to blow open the boundaries. They have simplified molecular analysis to a thumb drive, which may enable every individual to access their unique genetic profile. Proponents of universal healthcare argue that subsidizing preventative treatment offsets more substantial treatment after problems develop, but widespread gene sequencing promises to make prevention much more common and affordable.
The fear of unsustainability and inequality is often unwarranted and overhyped. It forces the anxious nebishes among us to cry for less consumption, capped growth, limited options, and redistributed incomes. This is not progress. What they fail to recognized is that creative problem solving is the gray matter of markets, which continually search for the next big challenge to conquer. Whatever our world faces, there are solutions to be discovered, and markets create the best incentive structure for doing so.
[pq]Economic growth means more people gradually gain access to things that make life better.[/pq]
Economic growth means large-scale change and opportunity. It means more people gradually gain access to things that make life better, even if those who can afford to pay up are the first in line. What matters is that there is a line at all. The items on this list describe the future for everyone, not just the wealthy elite—though it just may be the wealthy elite who make it possible through investment, risk, and early adoption.
Harder regulations and higher taxes discourage innovation and slow economic growth. Thankfully, the world is still full of dreamers and entrepreneurs who are willing to defy the odds to bring new solutions to ever-changing needs.