Designing for Emerging Technologies


A Call to Arms

Since the dawn of technology, humanity has lived with both its benefits and burdens. The fire that cooks our food also burns our hands; the mills and factories that produce our clothes often pollute our water and air; the computers that process our data sometimes crash and send our mission-critical records into oblivion. From the Agricultural to the Industrial to the Information Revolution, humanity has enjoyed great advantages from technology, but we have suffered the consequences of flawed thinking regarding its use, resulting in wasteful consumption of our world’s resources, problems for our environment, and social disruption. Humanity enters the new millennium struggling with the challenges we’ve created for ourselves in areas from energy to infrastructure, transportation to healthcare, and manufacturing to agriculture. To address these challenges, we will no doubt turn once again to technology: in the coming century, we’ll be able to hack our DNA, embed computers in our bodies, and print replacement organs. The question is, what will we do when we find ourselves with the capability to do just about anything we can dream of?

To explore that question — at least from a design perspective — let’s consider the implications of four significant emerging technologies whose growth, maturation, and widespread commercial adoption has the potential to disrupt the current economic order:

  • ? A networked, intelligent world connected by the Internet of Things (IoT)
  • ? More efficient and effective manufacturing, healthcare, and disaster relief aided by advanced robotics
  • ? Custom, just-in-time manufacturing, driven by additive fabrication/3D printing
  • ? Medicine, food, and fuel created by altering the code of life itself, through genomics and synthetic biology

Through the lens of these disruptive technologies, we’ll look at what designing products, services, and experiences for people might require and examine some of the high-level user experience (UX) tenets practitioners might consider when approaching the design for such new fields.

Today, we’re on the cusp of a significant technological period, not unlike the Second Industrial Revolution that occurred in America from the end of the Civil War until World War I, when major discoveries and inventions completely transformed the economic, social, and political fabric of the United States. During this particularly prolific era, inventors, innovators, and scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Nikola Tesla introduced the world to technologies that would define modern life in the twentieth century. These included the light bulb, the telephone, and the mass-produced automobile, among many others. The light bulb and basic electrical service provided the cornerstones of the electric age, while the telephone started a communication revolution, and the automobile began an era of personal transportation that would alter the landscape of America itself. Historically, this period provides a powerful example of the systemic disruption that occurs when multiple technological innovations emerge, mature, and reach popular adoption along roughly the same timeline. Just as the inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution transformed the United States on almost every level, robotics, additive fabrication, the IoT, and synthetic biology similarly have the potential to define and shape our next era.

As these technologies evolve, they will influence humanity’s progress as a species, making the tumult of our current Information Revolution look like a minor blip by comparison. Although the miracles of our age are many, computers, the Internet, and mobile devices primarily serve to accelerate human communication, collaboration, and commerce. Without dismissing their importance, we observe that many existing models of interaction have been enhanced, rather than transformed, by moving from the physical to the digital realm — becoming cheaper, faster and, perhaps, better in the process. Email is an accelerated version of the postal service, e-commerce, a more convenient and efficient version of the brick-and-mortar store, and so on. Conversely, in technologies such as synthetic biology and additive fabrication, we can see the potential to remake our current order in substantial fashion, with the formation of entirely new industries and the birth of new markets.

A May 2013 McKinsey Global Institute report titled “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy,” identifies the global markets ready for disruption and describes the potential economic value of this transformation. Genomics has the potential to alter the $6.5 trillion healthcare and $1.1 trillion agriculture industries through products such as personalized medicines and genetically modified foods. Additive fabrication/3D printing and advanced robotics will upend the global manufacturing industry — affecting the $6 trillion in labor expenditures and $11 trillion in global manufacturing GDP, respectively. And, the IoT will disrupt the manufacturing, healthcare, and mining industries to the tune of $36 trillion.[2]

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