Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

December 23, 2019

In 2019, we have written about how four domains of our daily lives are being disrupted by digital technology: mobility, health(care), food and education. In all these cases, digital technology does not only change the competitive field and reshape value chains, it also changes consumer preferences and creates new social and ethical challenges. As digital technology, regulation, consumer practices and business models co-shape each other, disruption is a process continuously in the making.

1. Mobility

Despite all stories about new generations not caring about cars, very little is changing in our travel behavior. Youngsters have less money and study longer, but as soon as they earn a living and start a family, they display “adult travel behavior”, just like their parents.

For now, we should not expect too much of technological change either. Even though chipmakers are getting ready to build a chauffeur-on-a-chip, it’s been a challenging year for self-driving cars and it will take many years before truly autonomous vehicles hit the road for real. Until that time, they will operate in trials to collect data for training purposes and possibly, within limits, for last-mile solutions. Most of all, they will be learning about the difficult-to-predict behavior of other, human, road users. Even if self-driving cars eventually come to work perfectly, it is still questionable whether we will welcome them wholeheartedly. For now, technology developers encounter quite a bit of resistance and even technology vandalism that reminds us of the Luddite protests in the early 19th century.

On a different note, the push for electrification of road (and waterborne) transport continues, because of climate change and in response to growing awareness about the deadly impact of local air pollution. Next year, we will see a surge in the number of electric vehicles on the market, but demand remains highly dependent on local subsidies for consumers and ethical concerns over natural resources (e.g. cobalt) could dampen enthusiasm about EVs. For this reason, and because battery technology will not progress fast enough, hydrogen as a fuel-of-the-future made quite a comeback last year.

2. Health

We are in the midst of the transition to a more personalized, preventive and participatory healthcare system. Changing disease patterns and aging societies demand a different organization of the system. Naturally, all eyes are on digital technology when it comes to enabling the transition, but, as we’ve frequently noted, digital technology is not a solution in itself. To illustrate, smart home care could relieve pressure and reduce unnecessary and costly hospital visits, but we expect socio-cultural dynamics, such as the coming generation of self-conscious and tech-savvy “elastic” elderly, to also play a big role in the sustainable management of aging societies.

Furthermore, ubiquitous digital self-tracking practices empower citizens to take responsibility for their own health, keep patients better informed on their health and could thus help democratize the doctor-patient relationship. Unfortunately, the rise of self-tracking might also lead to coercive practices and exploitation of the more vulnerable groups of society and government policies could be perceived as patronizing.

On an existential level, we don’t really know what the impact of the datafication of life will be. The emergence of the quantified self might improve measurable health, the amateur athlete is starting to look like a pro and the widespread adoption of mindfulness apps might help us get rid of the self-destructive and easily distracted “ego”. At the same time, the lack of spiritual legacy in mindfulness could increase self-centeredness or lead to alienation from our very own bodies.

For these reasons, socio-cultural reflection on the role of technology in health care is indispensable. Clever algorithms are already able to outperform doctors on specific and limited tasks (e.g. diagnosing tiny lung cancers), but we don’t expect doctors will be replaced altogether. The decision-making process of doctors requires moral reflection, practical wisdom and they have an important “healing role”.

3. Food

In 2019, food became a pressing geopolitical matter. We saw how the trade war between China and the U.S. disrupted food trade flows, how several conflicts around the world caused food insecurity (e.g. in Venezuela, Yemen and Sudan), and how countries increasingly looked to secure their future demand (as shown by China’s investment in agriculture in over 100 countries).

Unsustainable pressure on earth’s resources is further threatening food security. We are urged to look for ways to produce food in a climate-smart way: by adapting to climate change (e.g. saline farming, climate-resistant crops or regenerative farming practices) as well as reducing the ecological footprint of the food sector (e.g. fighting food waste or reducing food packaging). Drawing most attention this year were alternative protein products, as the plant-based protein transition is gaining speed in developed countries. Yet, since middle classes are rising across the developing world, demand for animal protein is bound to increase, as is illustrated by the rising popularity of milk in China.

Global obesity levels continued to rise in the past year and, in response, we are increasingly in search of more healthy lifestyles. What we eat is key to our health, attempts are emerging to biohack our diets and people have sought ways to link diet to our DNA.

As more and more people are moving to cities worldwide, the question is who the next generation of farmers will be, especially on rising continents such as Africa, where the rural youth do not aspire to traditional farming and are rapidly moving to cities. The question is also how growing cities will be able to sustain themselves in the future and what role indoor farming will play in this challenge. Meanwhile, online food delivery in urban centers is disrupting the food chain by challenging the traditional middlemen and sometimes even connecting consumers to farmers directly.

4. Education

Like last year, traditional education systems are struggling to provide students with relevant qualifications for the rapidly changing labor landscape. Consequently, alternative and sometimes radical initiatives to educate future employees are on the rise and companies are increasingly hiring without demanding a conventional degree. Coding, for example, is becoming an important skill for future generations to participate in our ever-digitizing world,but it has not found its way to general education yet. Nor has formal logic, even though it is central to all programming and would help future coders, irrespective of which coding language they eventually come to use. To fill that void, many online apps, programs andgames that offer the possibility to master coding skills are gaining popularity. Meanwhile,EdTech promises to bring about a revolution in traditional as well as alternative education in terms of efficiency, affordability and accessibility. Until now, EdTech has primarily offeredsolutions in traditional subjects such as math, language and geography and not much in the way of the desired 21st century skills.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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