As the World Economic Forum annual Top Ten Emerging Technologies reaches it’s tenth year, here’s how it all started
A couple of weeks ago, the World Economic Forum annual list of Top Ten Emerging Technologies reached its tenth anniversary. Co-published with Scientific American, the list is now widely seen as an authoritative and forward looking snapshot of technologies that are poised to make an impact over the coming 3 – 5 years.
Little did we realize ten years ago just how influential the annual list would become!
The origins of the Top Ten Emerging Technologies list go back to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, and to a meeting we had in Abu Dhabi in October 2011. But its roots go back even further.
The Global Agenda Councils were established by WEF in 2007 as the “intellectual locomotive” of the Forum’s ambitious Global Redesign Initiative. Made up of over 1,200 global thought-leaders spread over 70 focus areas, the Councils were charged with developing transformative approaches to complex global challenges.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the inaugural community of Council members and served with an amazing group of colleagues on the Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology. We met in person in 2008 as part of the Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda Dubai – dubbed “the biggest ever brainstorm on the global future” – where the first thing we did as a council was argue that we should really be called the Council on Emerging technologies!
The powers that be listened and the change was made, and for the next few years we worked as a team on the increasingly complex global landscape around transformative new technologies. The only problem was that emerging technologies were neither front and center of the World Economic Forum’s agenda at the time, (this was before the Forum’s focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution), or a priority for many of the global institutions the Forum engaged with.
Changing the Technology Narrative
By 2011 we realized as a council that there needed to be a change in thinking as business, government and civil society leaders faced a future dominated by transformative new technologies. But how could we most effectively shift the needle of global awareness?
The answer turned out to be simpler than many of us on the Council expected.
I’d served as chair of the Council the previous year, and as I handed over the reins of leadership, I was hoping to see new ideas emerge around how to tackle the gap between new technological capabilities, and their strategic and responsible development around the world.
As we grappled with the challenge, one of our Council’s members – co-founder of Rive Technology Javier Garcia-Martinez – came up with an inspired concept: a compelling and media attention-catching list of emerging technologies.
The idea was simple: We spend an hour or so brainstorming technologies we all thought were emerging, sexy, and likely to have an impact over the next few years; we write something up and get a high-profile media platform to publish it; and problem solved — instant buzz, and a global community of movers and shakers who suddenly realize that what they really need to be doing is paying attention to new technologies!
Of course, it wasn’t this simple, but naïve as it sounded, the idea worked. It took us until 2012 to get the list published, but when it came out it was more successful than we anticipated.
A post on the World Economic Forum blog (reputedly the most-read piece ever posted at the time) set the scene, and a high profile article in the Washington Post clinched the deal. It turned out that people were hungry for this level of insight into what was coming down the tech pike, and the annual list of Top Ten Emerging Technologies was born.
Peering Into The Future
That first list included big trends like synthetic biology, nanotechnology, personalized medicine, and a number of other technologies. In one or two cases we were off base or ahead of our time (wireless power is still emerging for instance, and it took a global pandemic before we saw substantial leaps in advanced educational technologies). But despite the somewhat ad hoc process of pulling the list together, it was surprisingly on-target.
My only disappointment at the time was that I advocated hard for this to be a list of emerging technology trends rather than technologies – a nuance that never made it to the final list.
Over the next few years, the list went from strength to strength. The process of spotting and selecting emerging technologies was improved up, and the write-ups were strengthened. As a result, the list became one of the go-to places for spotting near-term technologies and trends before they started hitting the headlines.
In 2014 for example, we highlighted RNA-based therapeutics – a technology that that was little-known at the time, but paved the way to today’s RNA-based COVID vaccines. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Council co-chair that year was Noubar Afeyan — co-founder and chair of Moderna and one of the first companies to come up with an RNA-based COVID vaccine.
Enter Scientific American
In 2015, the Global Agenda Councils were reorganized to include overarching “meta councils” and these included one on emerging technologies. By this time, it was becoming clear to the Forum that emerging tech needed be front and center of their global agenda (we were just a year away from World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab pivoting the Forum’s focus toward the Fourth Industrial Revolution).
The annual list of Top Ten Emerging Technologies became the purview of this council and its co-chairs: then-Scientific American Mariette DiChristina, and IBM Chief Innovation Officer Bernard Meyerson. Under Mariette and Bernie’s leadership, the process surrounding the list’s development was made yet more robust. But just as importantly, they established a partnership between the Forum and Scientific – a partnership that lasts to this day.
The Latest List
The tenth annual list has just been published by Scientific American and the World Economic Forum. This year’s list includes decarbonization, crops that make their own fertilizer, breath-based medical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals on demand, energy from wireless signals (with a nod to that original 2012 list), increasing “healthspan,” green ammonia production, wireless biomarkers, 3D printed housing using local materials, and space-based sensing. The technologies we focus on have become more focused and applied over the years. But the value of the list remains the same – revealing new capabilities and trends that are poised to transform our lives, but have yet to hit most people’s radars.
Of course, as with every year, we miss some important trends, and we highlight others that don’t quite deliver on their promise – at least, not yet. Despite this though, it remains one of the most authoritative technological bellwethers for what’s coming, and what we should be preparing for!
And of course, now that this year’s list is out, the work begins on thinking about what will be new and emerging in 2022!
One Hundred Emerging Technologies
With this year’s list of Top Ten Emerging Technologies, we’ve hit the hundred mark. Of course, these just scratch the surface of what’s new and emerging in technology innovation. But they do help shift the focus on what’s emerging from large and nebulous trends like AI and the Internet of Things to more applied and near-term technologies. And they continue to highlight the importance of understanding and navigating an increasingly complex technological landscape as we work to build a better future.
And just for the record, here are those ten years of emerging technologies:
- 2012 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2012/02/the-2012-top-10-emerging-technologies/
- 2013 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2013/02/top-10-emerging-technologies-for-2013/
- 2014 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/09/top-ten-emerging-technologies-2014/
- 2015 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/03/top-10-emerging-technologies-of-2015-2/
- 2016 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/top-10-emerging-technologies-2016/
- 2017 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/these-are-the-top-10-emerging-technologies-of-2017/
- 2018 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/top-10-emerging-technologies-of-2018/
- 2019 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/07/these-are-the-top-10-emerging-technologies-of-2019/
- 2020 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/2020-top-10-emerging-technologies/
- 2021 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/11/these-are-the-top-10-emerging-technologies-of-2021/
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