The Long Journey From Nanotechnology To Emerging Technologies

Two and a half years ago I was invited to join the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on nanotechnologies, as part of “the worlds largest brainstorming”. The chief reason for having a nanotechnology council at all was that nanotech had been identified as a global risk in a WEF report (thank you Prince Charles), so we found ourselves among many luminaries for the worlds of business and governance, although shoved into a corner with little interaction with the rest of the meeting.

Part of the outcome of that first meeting was the realisation that from most points of view, such as innovation, regulation, funding or governance, most emerging technologies faced similar problems. As a result we changed the name of our council to Emerging Technologies and at the second meeting in 2009 actually attracted some brief attention as a result of some rather intense lobbying to promote the idea that Emerging Technologies can be part of the solution rather than simply a risk.

While we discussed Emerging Technologies in terms of nanotechnolgies, synthetic biology and geoenginering, we still lacked a real sense of how Emerging Technologies could be defined. To some the phrase meant Twitter, while to others it meant computational chemistry.

At this years meeting we finally assembled enough brain power to come up with a draft definition saying that  Emerging Technologies are ones that:

  • arise from new knowledge, or the innovative application of existing knowledge;
  • lead to the rapid development of new capabilities;
  • are projected to have significant systemic and long-lasting economic, social and political impacts;
  • create new opportunities for and challenges to addressing global issues; and
  • have the potential to disrupt or create entire industries.

Although the definition is still a little wordy, it does capture the essence of the discussion.

For technologies to be ‘emerging’ there needs to be some kind of acceleration taking place, or some huge government funding effort, massive market pull, or some other factor that sets them apart from all of the other technologies that are chugging along quite nicely but not going anywhere fast. It’s not perfect, but it is a start.

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