Disruptive innovations are defined as those new products and services that are so unique and powerful that they literally disrupt the entire industry. The cloud, for instance, was disruptive because it changed the way that people store and use information and applications. Mobile technology was also disruptive because it revolutionized the way that we communicate and live our lives.
As mobile and cloud technologies become mainstream, these are no longer disruptive. Business and society have adjusted to these innovations and are ready to move forward. However, other new disruptive innovations continue to make their way down the pipelines. For instance, Uber has been incredibly disruptive to the world of personal transportation, affecting everything from public transport to private taxis. In some markets, fewer drivers are investing in personal vehicles due to the easy availability of Uber drivers, lessening the need for new and used cars. It's also created an entirely new way to earn a second income for those drivers who choose to offer Uber users transportation. The disruptive innovation of Uber, however, would not have been possible without both the cloud and mobile technology. Disruptive innovation breeds disruptive innovation.
Here are the most noteworthy disruptive innovations of the past year, along with a few sneak peeks into what these innovations hold for the future.
1. Unmanned Vehicles
2015 was the year that the first unmanned car got stopped by the police and the drone caught its first criminal all by itself.
It was an ordinary day in Mountain View, California this November, when an officer pulled over a vehicle for going too slowly and impeding traffic. That's when things quit being so ordinary. The officer quickly realized that this particular vehicle didn't have, well, a driver. It belonged to Google's fleet of Autonomous (self-driving) Vehicles. The police department was pretty cool about the whole thing, and Google's Autonomous Vehicles department did apologize. But it marks an entirely new era of navigating public roadways. Driverless vehicles are still incredibly new -- not something the average driver sees every day. But this technology is on the cusp of completely revolutionizing (that is, disrupting) the way people get where they need to go.
But unmanned cars aren't the only disruptive innovation to break out in 2015. Drones also made a huge impact, and not always in a good way. One man from Florida got arrested for using his drone to deliver a message to the White House, while the FAA had fits all year long trying to nail down regulations for these unmanned fliers. Some drones have impeded the efforts of firefighters to put out fires, while others have been used to intrude on the privacy of their owners' neighbors. One drone met its untimely demise when it was shot down for spying on a neighbor. Authorities refused to arrest the shooter since the owner of the drone did not have permission to be on his property.
Legal quagmires aside, unmanned vehicles (either driving or flying) are here to stay. Look for the years to come to bring improvements in the technology behind these innovations, as well as better regulations to define where, when, how, and by whom these vehicles are allowed to operate.
2. The Internet of Things
When the year began, the Internet of Things was a nebulous concept hardly understood by the general public. Now, as 2015 winds to a close, most of the public is aware of what the IoT is and has at least a vague concept of how it will change their lives. Connected cars no longer seem scary, since most everyone from the age of 12 to the age of 102 is used to carrying a smartphone. Fitbits have revolutionized the way people exercise. As smart homes and smart appliances become more affordable, people will increasingly come to accept -- even to demand -- that their grocer deliver milk when the refrigerator says to, not when a family member breaks down and visits the corner store.
But the consumer side of the IoT is just a small part of the story of how this disruptive innovation is changing the world. The industrial IoT is changing how products are manufactured, how food is grown and harvested, and how all of our products are transported to the marketplace. These devices are helping to reduce industry's energy usage, reduce waste, streamline and improve operations, speed time to market, and so much more. Even industries that are notoriously slow to embrace new technologies, like logistics, began adopting the IoT in 2015. Look for this trend to continue and for both businesses and consumers to become even more dependent on connected devices and the data generated by connected devices.
3. Shake Ups in the Energy Sector
The government is forcing fossil fuels out of the energy sector, but wind and solar power is not able to pick up the slack. What will the next step be? It could be nuclear fusion.
For over a decade, both governments and private companies have been investing in sustainable energy technologies like wind farms and solar panels. But many industry insiders have determined that these energy sources, while sustainable from an environmental perspective, are not sustainable financially. Furthermore, there are negative consequences to these alternative sources of energy that weren't foreseen before massive investments were made in these technologies. For instance, wind turbines and solar panels are both dangerous to the local bird and wildlife population, and wind farms are a nuisance to nearby homeowners, who complain about everything from deafening noise to the destruction of pristine landscapes.
While industries are backing off of wind and solar power investments, government regulations are making it much more difficult to operate coal power plants. Since these issues are intensely politically charged, a lot remains to be seen about how humankind will inevitably solve their long-term energy needs. The energy sector is in desperate need for a new round of disruptive innovation to replace the dirty and unsustainable coal production and give us a better alternative than wind or solar power, which have proven expensive and inefficient as well as potentially dangerous.
Though industry might be backing off of green energy technologies a bit, private citizens looking to live 'off the grid' are going all-in with alternative energy sources. Some of these people want sustainable energy to protect the environment, while others seek to free themselves from dependence on the government and society, and still more are preparing for the collapse of civilization. But each group is driving the market for small-scale sustainable energy products like wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal energy products.
4. Big Data Storage Innovations
As big data becomes less of a buzzword and more of an actual thing that businesses do, the old concept of the database and data warehouse are no longer sufficient for many organizations. The new way of storing data is the data lake, an enormous repository of data stored in its native format. Data lakes are ideal for big data analysis, because the IT people do not need to know how the data will be used when it is stored. It allows for the storage of semi-structured and unstructured data, which does not fit well within the ordinary database or data warehouse structure. The data lake (and big data in general) is also driving the need for new programming and database languages.
Fortunately, as organizational data sets become larger, cloud storage has reached maturity. Businesses can now afford to store and process their big data in the cloud, meaning they do not have to invest in and maintain their own IT infrastructure in order to leverage massive storehouses of data like the data lake. The data lake will also allow for deeper analysis because organizations can afford to hang on to all of their historical data. This is exactly what is needed to power other disruptive innovations like predictive analytics and machine learning.
5. 3D Printing
MIT is working on a 3D printer that can produce an item made of as many as 10 materials. This would revolutionize users' ability to produce their own goods, including some things you'd rather they didn't.
3D printing was supposed to be a thing in 2014. And 2013. And 2012. But finally, in 2015, 3D printing made its mark. The printers have come a long way, both in quality and in affordability. The average consumer can now own their own 3D printer at home, with models of reasonable quality starting at less than $1,000. Another 3D printing advancement was the ability to print using more materials. Early models were limited to a few select plastics, while the latest 3D printers can work with metal, ceramics, different types of plastics, and more.
The mainstream mania of 3D printing is not without its dark side, however. People can now print guns, and not just any old gun. Plastic guns manufactured by 3D printers can't be detected by the metal detectors used in schools, public buildings, and other places that might fall under the threat of an active shooter. But that isn't the only concern with 3D printers. What if criminals could print a copy of your car keys right in your parking lot? Manufacturers worry about people being able to make their own products and no longer needing to buy their wares. Watch for 3D printing to be disruptive to legislators as well as consumers as they attempt to figure out how to regulate these and other issues.
Automation was a huge deal in 2015. This includes all kinds of automation. Robotics assisted with the automation of physical processes, such as building products in manufacturing, while software automation took over everything from workflow to marketing efforts. Automation has been feared among labor unions for decades, but the reality is that automation changes jobs for people instead of replacing people entirely. As machines take over the grunt work, jobs are opening up to design, build, install, and maintain those robots. Additionally, the robots have to be programmed, which also means more work for people. These jobs are higher paying, cleaner, and safer than the work that robots are taking over. Furthermore, all of these machines produce data, and the data has to be collected, stored, and analyzed to provide meaningful insight. This means that automation could eventually create more jobs than it takes over, and the jobs will be better too.
7. Everything 'aaS'
The 'aaS' or 'as a Service' business model is revolutionizing more than you might realize. The software industry is turned on its head with innovations like Windows 10, but aaS is also used to market products like IT infrastructure, data warehouses, and more. Outside the IT industry, the pay-as-you-go business model is being tried out in industries like agriculture, where buyers only pay for the right to use products for a specific length of time instead of investing in and owning the products outright. The year 2015 was a year of experimenting with this new concept, but look for the future to produce even more ways that this business model can change the way we buy and use products.
Will the pay-as-you-go business model eventually replace the concept of buying products and taking responsibility for ownership and maintenance? That isn't yet clear. Product innovation often comes along with new ways to market products and make money off of innovations. For example, it's quite conceivable that connected devices might one day be entirely free, as businesses determine that the data collected by these devices is more valuable than the consumer's payment for the device. In other words, marketers might learn enough from the way you use your smartphone to make up the profits by marketing other products and services to you, while giving you the use of your phone for free.
Like the cloud and mobile, many of these disruptive innovations could very well produce other innovations. Will we still be road raging to work at the end of this decade, or will Google's self-driving cars have us commuting in bliss? Will the unprofitability of wind farms and solar panels lead to the perfection of fusion energy? Will the aaS business model mean that we essentially lease what we want and give it up when we're ready for the next best thing?
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