The future may be high-tech, but people will save the day

by Matthew Lawlor, Robyn Moore and Chris Human
Imagine a world without taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers and even airline pilots. Some future thinkers say within the next decade, robots will be doing all of these jobs, including construction, maintenance, accounting, banking and even some retail functions. Dr Thomas Frey, senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and Google’s top-rated futurist says people should prepare for a future filled with robots, drones and increased automation.

Frey believes 60% of the best jobs in the next 10 years haven’t even been invented yet. He demonstrates this with the example of how the Facebook acquisition of Oculus Rift in March 2014 saw a surge for virtual reality designers and developers and helped this new technology take off.

Futurist and author, David Houle has dubbed it “the shift age” and it has many business leaders feeling overwhelmed and afraid. In the past 10 years, we have seen Kodak – a company of 17 000 that pioneered digital photography – go bankrupt while others, like Instagram, reached a market cap of $1.3 billion in 2012 with only 13 employees.

Gareth Rees, senior manager at Deloitte, says that while Kodak had the foresight to plan for digital camera technology way back in 1975, when company engineer Steve Sasson developed a camera that transferred images electronically instead of onto film, the company failed to capitalise on its strategic advantage. Company executives feared developing digital photography as they thought it would hurt their core business of film – ironically when camera film did become obsolete, Kodak was as well.

In such an environment, the question then becomes how does one avoid falling into the same pit that Kodak did? How to navigate through turmoil while living to see another day?

Rees says we need to learn how to innovate on the edge of chaos. Speaking at the Business Tomorrow Conference held at the UCT GSB, Rees stressed the importance of being able to spot business trends and innovations before they trip you up. “If you can see it, it is already too late,” he warned, explaining that business leaders need to be aware of how consumers and users are acting and interacting to be able to anticipate what will appeal to them next and what will add real value to their lives.

There are many examples of intuitive business ideas that have made it big in relatively short spaces of times by understanding these principles. Google and Facebook are changing the way users and consumers interact with products and services; AirBnB and Uber have turned the transport and accommodation industries on their heads and ruffled numerous feathers along the way by giving consumers more convenient and more empowered ways to book their holidays and move around.

Many of these new tech sensations are making money, not so much out of products – as more traditional business has – but by value-adding services. Thus you have the paradox of Uber, a company that does not own a single taxi but that operates the largest taxi business in the world.

WhatsApp, Gumtree and Instagram all offer consumers new ways to do things they already love doing, charging nothing or very little at the outset, but finding ways to monetise the service later. A computer game like Candy Crush, for example, is free for users, but makes $1 million a day from selling additional features – a clever technique that reveals the manufacturer’s brilliant understanding of how they can improve people’s lives.

This is something that the late, legendary Steve Jobs was renowned for. Famously quoted as saying that he did not have faith in technology, but faith in people, Jobs went ahead with iTunes when others said it would fail because pirating was rife. But he recognised that the reason people were going to Napster and pirating was not because they were inherently bad and didn’t want to pay, but because traditional payment models were broken. By giving people an easy way to pay for exactly what they wanted when they wanted it – music sales shot up.

This shows that while many things may be changing, some business fundamentals remain the same. Understanding customers and offering them something they want is not a new phenomenon – and will be as important as ever in an age of chaos and shift.

Former Naspers executive and angel investor Bill Paladino, who also spoke at the GSB conference, says that another enduring business truth is the power of partnership and connection. He says that while there are investors eager to invest in innovative products and services, entrepreneurs need to be presentable, eloquent and able to properly pitch their value proposition. He encourages young people not to give up if they find themselves struggling to find support, but to keep at it, and to focus on making connections with established figures in the business world; to network, and to seek collaborations and partnerships.

Young business leaders who want to know how to get ahead would do well to take these two lessons to heart – the power of people and relationships – knowing customers and understanding how value can be added to their lives.

And it doesn’t have to be high-tech either. As many technological industries are saturated, Paladino encourages young entrepreneurs to look to finding new ways to disrupt existing industries and add value.

Industries like paint or lumber are ready for innovation and should be examined for opportunities to simplify operations or make them more convenient for customers. While not as sexy as the high-tech sectors, these industries could be fertile ground for the innovative business mind, he said.

In emerging economies and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, there are other factors to consider. According to the World Bank, six of the world’s 13 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. Yet, the continent battles poverty, unemployment, health issues, and transport and infrastructure problems. It offers many opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers for solutions that can improve access to water, better distribution of medical services and medicines, solar energy and mobile infrastructure and wireless technologies. It is in one of these sectors where the next innovative business mind is sure to strike gold.

Matthew Lawlor, Robyn Moore and Chris Human are MBA students at the UCT GSB who were co-organisers of the Business Tomorrow Conference at the school.

Useful resources:
University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, Executive Education
Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business is dedicated to growing the leadership backbone in organisations and individuals and inspiring a new generation of leaders to engage with the challenges of the African continent in a hyper-connected and globalised world.
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