The Next Silicon Valley

The 10 innovations that could impact our lives in 2016

Image courtesy of NESTA

When a new year begins, pundits and commentators all over the world try and forecast the top trends for their industry or sector. In this article, we highlight the 10 predictions for 2016 from UK based innovation charity, Nesta, which works with partners and on projects around the world. In its reflections on the potential innovations and their impact on the world’s challenges or opportunities, it is clear that it is based on the continuing pervasive role of mobile and digital connectivity, on the cloud and internet, the collected data and analytics.

The predictions also see technology at the heart of improving health, education and business, and also disrupting the current disruptors of business. And we’ll see the power of collaboration in a data-driven world. In 2016 we’ll see healthcare professionals prescribe video games to their patients, boutique food producers take on the supermarkets and the emergence of new challenge-driven universities which harness the collective problem solving capabilities of the world’s students.

Here are the organization’s top 10 predictions of technologies and innovations that will impact our lives in 2016:

For a little more detail on the above, we outline some of what these entail below.

Retail starts to perform

Predictions about the growth of online shopping leading to the demise of the physical shopping trip seem to have been far off the mark. The high street continues to draw shoppers in their millions, seeking physical experiences that are as much about satisfying the need for leisure and entertainment as the purchase of products.

This mix of physical and digital experiences that we’re seeing is termed ‘omni-channel retailing’, and retailers are working hard to keep one step ahead of their competitors. For example, Burberry has been at the forefront of this development, creating shops that merge the physical with the digital –’Burberry World Live’ is an integrated shopping experience featuring a 22ft-high screen, nearly 500 hidden speakers and a hydraulic stage. RFID (radio-frequency identification) microchips are embedded into certain clothes. Customers wearing the microchipped clothing can look into a mirror-like screen revealing how the garment would appear on a catwalk.

The growing customer demand for memorable omni-channel experiences has led to new entrants into the physical retail world, such as Google opening its first-ever branded shop. The shop sells the company’s phones, computers and TV products, as well as hosting masterclasses showing consumers how to use the devices, and demonstrations showing off key Google apps.

Small food gets big

Sensors and better data will make small farms more viable. New technology will help more people to buy and sell direct. And concerns about food sourcing will get citizens more and more interested in knowing where food comes from.

As other industries have been changed by automation and the internet, agriculture and food are now on the brink of being transformed. Large food manufacturers and agriculture giants have been using these techniques for some time, but the sensors and software are now becoming much more accessible to smaller businesses, and have the potential to level the playing field.

Precision agriculture technologies could increase profits on small farms by 18 per cent. Research suggests that businesses who use data effectively are eight per cent more productive. The data needed to do this is now much more easily available to small farms and small food producers. All this will be good for innovation in food production and distribution, an area that has been dominated for too long by price and the power of a very small number of companies.

Audio tech makes more than music

Sound might help provide one of the first ways to end the screen’s reign as our main way of interacting with digital tech. UK startup Ultrahaptics is working with Jaguar Land Rover to create invisible air-based controls for drivers to control their settings without reaching for a button, using ultrasound waves produced by an array of mini speakers to detect the specific position of a hand and create pressure on the hand as feedback when a command has been recognized.

Using similar ultrasound tech, in October British and Spanish scientists revealed a new technique for floating objects in mid-air. Borrowing from the idea of optical tweezers, the researchers programmed an array of tiny speakers to levitate, rotate and accelerate multiple small objects. In 2016 this could lead to the development of new 3D physical displays or ways of manipulating objects inside the body without cutting the skin. Imperceptible audio waves are also at the centre of less palatable innovations.

Headlines in the last couple of years have included the potential of the Amazon Fire or Hello Barbie to spy on you in your own home. Ultrasonic waves are key to a related kind of personal data collection – cross-platform tracking. A crop of US-based startups embed ultrasonic signals into TV commercials or an ad displayed in a computer browser. Nearby tablets and smartphones can detect the signal and a single user can be profiled using the multiple devices in their home. The American Centre for Democracy and Technology has filed a comment to the Federal Trade Commission, but this could make much bigger headlines in the next twelve months.

The devices listening in our living rooms could be put to work creating a new database of voice recordings for researchers. That sits a lot more comfortably than advertisers snooping on our every word. Although that might take another ten years, by which time acoustic recognition could be rendered unnecessary. MIT researchers can now reconstruct a conversation from the way a nearby crisp packet moves. Perhaps by 2026 these miniscule movements will be used to identify suspects from high definition mobile video.

Patients become citizen scientists

We are in the middle of an explosion in the amount of data that exists about the health of individuals. This data is coming in via smartphones, wearables such as Fitbits, personal genomics and the digitisation of health records. Its volume will soon dwarf that held by universities and institutes, and, in time, become a great engine of medical discovery. From the telescope to the MRI machine, new sources of data are often what catapults science forward.

The same pill, therapy or diet will often have widely different effects from person to person. If we can understand and predict this more clearly, then we can target care where it will do most good, leading to a more effective healthcare system, as well as improving efficiency. Traditional research techniques are mainly focused on examining average responses but with this richer data we can begin to understand variation.

This new data is produced, owned and controlled by patients. So it will be accessed on their terms – as active participants rather than passive subjects. The richest opportunities will arise when patients act as citizen scientists, actively measuring and interacting, within communities where they have a powerful voice in the direction and conduct of learning. In other words, the next generation of research will be patient-led. The building blocks are in place. Patients are frustrated by the speed of research and often its direction.

Patient associations are already extremely active research collaborators – maintaining registries, assembling biobanks, raising funds and lobbying government. They will seize the opportunity presented by digital research. The technology is here, and improving all the time. We already have pills that broadcast a signal when they have been swallowed, cheap home ECGs, and affordable personal genomics. Many similar devices will come to market over the next few years – including the contact lens that measures blood glucose levels, as long promised by Google.

The sticky and sweet future of food hacking

Nutritional supplements and food hacking are not new concepts but they became imbued with much more potential in 2003, when the sequencing of the human genome was completed. By sequencing human DNA, scientists can identify specific markers in our genetic code and relate them to potential health risks, inherited medical conditions and responses to certain drugs.

23andMe, an American company founded in 2006, aims to accelerate genetic research by crowdsourcing; willing participants submit their DNA to the company’s database.

This relatively-recent scientific advancement has given us an unprecedented amount of information about what we’re made of, so why can’t it inform what goes in us? If we have the ability to analyze our DNA, and use that knowledge to adjust our behaviour, why can’t the food we eat be hacked to make us fitter, faster and stronger?

Perhaps the logical extension of genotyping and food hacking is bespoke nutritional recommendations; combining DNA analysis with information about a person’s lifestyle, diet, sleep, mental and emotional states. The technology for accumulating this data is already here; wearables and smart phone apps can know our habits and analyse our environments already, with increasing sophistication. In the near-future everything we eat – powdered or solid, organic or synthetic, healthy or junk – could be catalogued and the effects on our body are analyzed, in real-time, as we consume.

Food hacking will impact everyone, not just the web-savvy or health conscious; it could lead to a systemic change in food production and distribution. If a nutrient-rich powder can be processed more cheaply and efficiently than, say, a frozen dinner or a McBurger, it could perceivably be used to end world hunger.

The titans of the sharing economy meet their match

In 2016, we will see the disrupters being disrupted, as the next technological revolution simultaneously cracks the challenge of trusting strangers in the sharing economy while ripping up the rulebook for how those same platforms make their money. Sharing economy businesses, despite their power to disrupt incumbents and despite being radical in their own right, make use of some very traditional business models. The most common model is to take a commission on transactions; something businesses have been doing for centuries. Technology has to date not been able to completely do away with the middleman.

While our experiences of using these new marketplaces are dramatically more convenient and have opened up the possibility of transacting with many different kinds of providers, the middleman is still very much with us. Indeed, the biggest new businesses are intermediaries of a scale barely imagined in the past – from Alibaba to Amazon, eBay to Uber.

What if there were a technological solution to fully disintermediate between people wishing to transact with each other? A way of directly transacting with anyone, in a way that was invulnerable to fraud, in a system that nobody actually owned, so no-one took a commission?

Blockchain technology offers this possibility. With the blockchain, the infinitely more interesting innovation that sits underneath Bitcoin, we have a fully transparent, un-ownable, distributed system that securely allows multiple kinds of transactions to take place between different actors, whether they be people, businesses or even governments – without the need for any kind of intermediary.

In a blockchain world, we’re going to have to invent some new business models if we want to continue to make money out of brokerage within the sharing economy. OpenBazaar, a proto-blockchain version of eBay, says it will be ‘free to use and always will be’. We’ve seen this phrase before, you’ll remember, and Facebook has indeed, found some creative ways of making money.

Challenge-driven universities to solve global problems

Recent years have brought a huge expansion of student numbers – up to 150 million worldwide and potentially over 260 million by 2025. In parallel, university wealth has mushroomed, reflected in a myriad of building projects and rising salaries for university leaders. But critics worry that universities aren’t using their new strength to give more back to the places they’re based in. What’s rewarded in universities is either the quality of teaching, or the quality of research as judged by other academics – both very important, but not the whole story.

Universities could be providing much more brainpower to solve the problems of the communities they live in. But incentives point in the opposite direction, for example towards attracting foreign students, or getting research published, and most rely on very traditional teaching methods – lectures, course notes, tutorials – which turn students away from practical engagement with society. 2016 will bring the spread of very different methods that harness student brainpower to real life problems. Their aim will be to reconnect universities and the communities they’re in, while also better preparing young people for the future.

Linking push and pull can happen at a local level, as universities link their work much more closely with the needs of the places where they’re based. Some new universities are also likely to adopt the challenge-driven approach, and in contrast to the very top-down world of MOOCs, these will mobilize bottom-up grassroots innovation, and the cultures of hacking, and collaborative problem solving.

But a particularly exciting possible push could come from the world of development and the United Nations. Traditionally development has been a field for experts and consultants. But imagine if the UN challenged the world’s universities to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals just agreed. All over the world students would design and implement projects around issues like water, gender equality or malnutrition.

Digital platforms would help them collaborate with other teams, sharing ideas and information. Instead of being sent off for a week or two to work on rather superficial projects in poor countries (the very inadequate model used by many elite universities in the West), students would be encouraged to work on the problems on their doorstep.

Computer games that heal you

Imagine if you could play a computer game that healed you as you played. Sounds far-fetched? Computer game therapy is a growing field that is still finding its feet. 2016 will be the year that doctors start prescribing games to patients. Play as a source of therapy has been around for years. Role playing has long been used to help patients expose issues that can’t be confronted head on, and the role of team games in mental rehabilitation is well- documented.

But the health benefits of computer games are only just coming to light. Each year, a quarter of the UK population will suffer from some type of mental health problem. The severity ranges from mild anxiety to full-blown depression, and many of these symptoms start in children before the age of 14. Mental care services are struggling to keep up and the need to find preventative measures is now greater than ever.

Medicine and technology have a long history. But solutions have tended to focus on hardware, such as pills and diagnostics, rather than software to heal the mind. With the rise of the gaming industry, a new set of tools with therapeutic potential are emerging. Strong narrative structures, immersive role-play and comforting game dynamics are being brought to the attention of both researchers and doctors as valid treatments for a range of mental illnesses.

A recent study published in the American Psychologist found that computer games could provide a cheap and effective way, alongside other drugs and therapy, of alleviating mental health problems. The research found that all games, not just socially complex or immersive role-playing games, have a part to play in alleviating mental health conditions. Even simple games that are easy to access and can be played quickly, such as Angry Birds, were found to improve players’ moods, promote relaxation and ward off anxiety.

Locking the cyber backdoor

As computer-integrated devices start to fill our homes, a threat looms in the shadows. Smart TVs, webcams, thermostats, door locks, home alarms, and lights mean that your home can no longer be protected by physical doors and locks alone. Most people don’t realize the threat is even there, but in 2016 the smart home will make cybersecurity a household concern – and it’s about time.

Many of the companies that make these connected devices use off-the-shelf components and cloud services which they do not have control over. Questions over the supply chain and a lack of awareness mean that many of these objects have serious inbuilt security flaws. Devices lack basic protections, like encryption or adequate password systems.

The issue is becoming increasingly serious as most of these devices are collecting personal information about us that could be extremely valuable to a hacker (or government agency). Not only this but they also provide a backdoor into your home. Baby monitors have been used to swear at parents, scream at babies and spy on people. So far these revelations have not had the same impact as the car hacking events of last summer, when hackers remotely took control of a car while someone was driving it.

It is difficult to convince people to act until something bad happens. As the smart home becomes a greater part of our lives, 2016 will be the year something bad does happen.

It isn’t all bad news though. An IoT security industry is growing out of these concerns and new technology like lightweight cryptography is making things easier. Companies like Dojo-Labs and F-Secure SENSE are making use of advances in machine-learning algorithms to provide an overarching connected home security system.

This technology works a little like the body’s immune system, learning what normal activity on the network looks like and then reacting when it sees something unusual. It is the same approach that the security firm Darktrace has successfully employed, and will be a much bigger part of online protection in 2016 and beyond. Dojo-Labs has even created a glowing stone which acts as a physical embodiment of your smart home protection, helping to make digital security feel less abstract.

We talk a lot about the opportunities connected devices, smart homes and smart cities could bring but security failures could still undermine their potential. 2016 is going to be an important year for getting IoT security right.

Universal basic income moves into beta

A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. It has been proposed at various times over the centuries by thinkers from Thomas More and John Stuart Mill to, more recently, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. Its attraction reaches across the political spectrum, from Martin Luther King to Milton Friedman.

In recent years, the inability to tackle unemployment through conventional means combined with the rise of job automation has prompted academics, politicians and commentators to revisit the concept. Proponents of a basic income point to a host of benefits, ranging from ending poverty and reducing inequality, to securing better working conditions and greater recognition of unpaid contributions such as child rearing or volunteering. Non means-tested income is also much simpler to administrate making it a compelling proposition when considering ways to reduce fraud or levels of bureaucracy in welfare systems.

A recent project in Namibia to provide a village with a basic unconditional income has produced some interesting findings, including the ability of villagers to use the income as seed funding for micro-enterprises such as hairdressers and bakeries.

A number of cities and countries in Europe have committed to trialling a basic income, including the Finnish government. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä stated that the basic income meant ‘simplifying the social security system’. Meanwhile the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Tilburg, Groningen and Wageningen are petitioning the Dutch national government to permit local trials.

For the full report on each prediction, visit the Nesta web site here.

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