Most everyone will agree that we are in the middle of a digital technology revolution. Digital technologies are being integrated into just about every nook and cranny of the economy, society and our personal lives. In the process, they are leading a historical transition from the industrial economy of the past couple of centuries to a new kind of digital economy and information-based society. As part of this transition, our economy, and just about all institutions of society are going through major structural changes whose vast implications are not well understood.
It’s very difficult to anticipate the consequences of disruptive technologies and innovations. When first developed in the late 19th century, electricity was mostly used to replace kerosene lamps and candles with light bulbs. It took several decades for electric appliances, the assembly line and mass production to emerge and help create whole new industries and many new jobs. Similarly, the impact of the automobile has been felt way beyond its original transportation role, becoming a key driver of the economy in the 20th century including the rise of the suburbs.
If it has proved difficult to predict the long term impact of major industrial-based innovations, it’s even more difficult to do so with IT-based innovations because they are so relatively recent. While it might feel that the Web has been around for a very long time, it has only been widely used for less than twenty years. And smartphones, tablets and other mobile technologies we can barely do without have only been with us for less than half that time. So, it is not surprising that most studies looking out a few decades into the future include the caveat that the future is essentially unpredictable, whether because of the emergent behaviors inherent in complex chaotic systems like the economy, or because of the ever-present potential for black swan events which are near-impossible to predict but when they do arrive can profoundly shape the course of history.
But, despite our cloudy crystal ball, a few basic trends stand out. Let me mention and briefly discuss three such trends that appear repeatedly in studies about the future: the need for lifelong education to help workers keep up with rapidly advancing technologies and fast changing job markets; the impact of globalization in raising the standards of living in emerging and developing economies; and the challenges to health care and social benefit programs posed by aging populations around the world.