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Do you have a plan? The five technology threats senior leaders ignore at their peril

17 April 2015

The article at a glance

Throughout history, companies have been left ruined by the wayside when caught unprepared by changes in technology that destroyed their business models. …

Throughout history, companies have been left ruined by the wayside when caught unprepared by changes in technology that destroyed their business models.

Tech threats

“A wave of new technologies is about to shake up the business environment for many industries,” says Professor Peter Williamson, Honorary Professor of International Management at the University of Cambridge and Academic Programme Director of the Cambridge Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP), which encourages business leaders to consider forces that may threaten or help their businesses in the longer term. “Business leaders can gain by thinking about how they could use these technologies to innovate and create strategic advantage; and how to compete against new competitors who are using them.”

Here are five new types of technology emerging today that have the potential to transform the business world:

1. Nanotechnology

What is it? – Officially the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale, nanotechnology maximises a material’s enhanced properties by working with it in ways that are just beginning to be explored, such as higher strength, greater chemical reactivity and the way materials interact with light.

Who’s affected? – At the moment, more than 1,600 commercial products are identified by their manufacturers as containing nanoparticles, and more are coming on the market. “Business leaders have to be on the lookout for disruptive technologies and nanotechnology has the potential to be disruptive in many ways,” says Dr Ventsislav Valev, research fellow of the Royal Society and Reader at the University of Bath and head of its MultiPhoton NanoPhotonics research group.

One important development we may soon see will be the creation of quantum computers based on nanoscale components that are capable of huge computational power. This would affect not just businesses but the way society uses technology in general, because such computers could crack all existing encryption algorithms. Nanotechnology may also be used with extremely thin or small but very strong materials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes, for applications in industries from electronics to manufacturing and in energy generation.

What should you look out for? – Dr Valev’s own research has focused on the interaction of nano-sized particles and crystals with light, creating technologies that could have multiple applications in areas including electronics, medicine and the military. For example, it might be possible to use non-toxic gold nanoparticles to coat or interact with specific proteins or DNA, to identify specific diseases within the body. Other techniques use nanoscale materials and light to enable molecular analysis, which could improve the design of new drugs.

Dr Valev and his colleagues have also devised new “metamaterial” using gold nanoparticles and powerful laser pulses. One potential application of metamaterials would be invisibility cloaking, where light is guided along the material and around a cloaked object. The team used molecules called cucurbiturils to create evenly spaced strings of gold nanoparticles. Then, using powerful laser pulses the scientists create tiny gold bridges, which allow light to be guided by the metamaterials. In future, further advances in this field will make it possible to achieve distorting or concealing effects with larger objects.

2. Smarter construction

What is it? – The construction sector, which accounts for around 10% of GDP in the UK, is on the cusp of revolutionary change resulting from the application of new sensor technologies and visualisation tools.

Who’s affected? – Business leaders need to track developments in smarter construction technology not just because of their importance on a day-to-day operational level, but also because smarter construction will enable owners, investors and insurers gain a clearer picture of risks affecting building and infrastructure assets and investments.

“Smarter construction technologies offer the potential for faster construction, at lower cost, producing high quality structures that use less carbon and last longer,” says Campbell Middleton, Laing O’Rourke Professor of Construction Engineering at the University of Cambridge. “There is massive investment in these new structures, but with very few do we go back afterwards to measure whether they perform as predicted; and to determine the true margin of safety against collapse or failure.”

What should you look out for? – The next logical step is to develop ways to monitor performance. Fibre optic cables can be used to measure strains and temperature in buildings, bridges and tunnels and are already deployed at dozens of sites in the UK and Europe, including the Crossrail project in London and at CERN in Switzerland.

Elsewhere, wireless networks of “smart” sensors are being deployed. These can be monitored remotely and are being used to monitor the structural health of the Humber Bridge and tunnels on the London Underground. Other smart construction monitoring technologies include micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors.

Researchers in Cambridge are also developing small energy harvesting devices, which can harness energy from their environment, using, for example, ambient vibrations; and could be used to power monitoring devices in future. Other technologies that may play a role in smarter construction include virtual reality, during design, construction and operation; and 3D printing, for sensors and construction components.

New materials are being developed that may play a role in construction in future, such as aerogels, where liquid within a synthetic material is replaced with gas to create a solid, low density, low conductivity material; or graphene and carbon nanotubes.

3. Natural structures

What is it? – Michael Ramage, architectural engineer and senior lecturer in the department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge, and others studying in this field across the globe are seeking to improve our understanding of how natural materials function structurally, through biochemistry, chemistry, plant sciences and engineering disciplines.

Who’s affected? – Using sustainably sourced natural materials such as wood and bamboo to construct buildings and infrastructure, rather than concrete and steel, which require a lot of energy to produce, could provide useful commercial opportunities for many businesses. “Natural materials will be a very significant part of the built environment in the not too distant future,” claims Ramage. One reason is the drive to improve environmental sustainability in business, increasingly now a cost, compliance and tax issue.

Ramage’s own work entails analysis at a sub-molecular scale of plant cell construction, trying to identify which properties could contribute to attributes desirable in buildings, such as stiffness, strength and resistance to fire and natural pests. If these properties can be identified it should be possible to adapt them using plant breeding or chemical intervention.

What should you look out for? – Ramage believes our failure to consider wood for major constructions is an example of how blind we can be to some business opportunities. “People think of wooden buildings and they immediately think of fire – but ironically, wooden buildings don’t burn,” he says. “If you build a campfire and you start with the logs you’ll be cold all night. Massive wooden buildings are built of things like logs, so they don’t catch fire. “Wooden buildings do catch fire, but mostly during construction – the most dangerous time. By ignoring wood we’re currently ignoring one of the three major building materials. What other things are being ignored that are actually useful opportunities?”

Additive manufacturing

What is it? – Additive manufacturing is a process for creating complex objects very quickly and efficiently using only materials that will form part of the finished item.

Who’s affected? – Additive manufacturing may yet completely transform production and supply chain processes in many different industries, because it is much more efficient than conventional manufacturing. 3D printing technologies are the most obvious example – they are already helping companies create product prototypes more quickly and cost-effectively with minimal waste – but similar processes and technologies may soon be used to produce other materials, such as clothing, machinery, medical supplies and even food or drugs.

Additive manufacturing is already used in medical applications, to create replacement bones and bone parts to precise specifications. In some cases it will be possible to manufacture these items in the same building where a patient is being cared for. It is this capability, to create materials in or very close to the place where they will be used that could transform supply chains of all types.

What should you look out for? – “Biology is the ultimate in additive manufacturing: think about the way a plant grows from a seed,” says Dr Chris Forman, of the department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. He and other researchers in this field seek to learn from the way biological processes create such a huge range of animals, plants and other organisms using DNA and proteins. The long term goal would be to replicate this: devising a single process for constructing different complex materials without altering underlying chemicals and processes that build them.

Synthetic biology

What is it? – Similar to genetic biology, synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary process involving the functional aspects of biotechnology and molecular biology, and could be defined as the design of biological devices for a practical purpose.

Who’s affected? – There are, broadly speaking, two different schools of thought around the future of synthetic biology, says Dr Chris Forman. One aims to try to understand biology at a detailed level and recreate it in a different form; the other wants to take biological systems like cells and re-engineer their DNA using genetic code not found in nature.
In the long term, synthetic biology could have profound implications for industry and society, because it will enable adaptation and more efficient use of biological materials for many purposes.

What should you look out for? – Synthetic biology builds on advances in areas such as metabolic engineering, which encourages cells to increase production of particular substances through use of biochemical reactions and enzymes. Genetic engineering can be used to modify these processes and thus produce a desired product. In future, similar techniques could create new synthetic products efficiently on a large scale, such as foodstuffs, pharmaceutical materials, or raw materials for biofuels.

The other aspect of synthetic biology that may become more important is the creation of standardised biological components, through reprogramming cell behaviour. In one example, researchers took an E.coli bacteria cell and engineered it to produce different colours when interacting with specific substances. One application was to make someone’s faeces change colour according to what was in their intestine – to identify specific pollutants, or chemical indicators of disease.

This article was published on

17 April 2015.