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10 Thoughts on the Future of Innovation From Boston 2034

Xconomy Boston — 

Twenty years is a long time. Yet, to many of us, 1994 doesn’t feel all that long ago. So it seems like about the right amount to look forward as we think about the future of technology, society, and innovation.

And look forward we did. At our Boston 2034 conference on Tuesday, we brought together a big group of distinguished technology and business leaders to discuss where New England—and the world—are heading in the next two decades.

Special thanks to our platinum sponsors—Bentley University, CAMX Power, and healthymagination—for making this event a huge success. And a big thank-you to our other event sponsors, supporters, and, of course, to our speakers and audience, for a very memorable day indeed.

Here are 10 ideas from 2034 that stood out to me (most in paraphrased form):

1. Dean Kamen from DEKA and FIRST: Our predictions for 2034 will be as wrong as predictions for the present day from 200 years ago, because of the acceleration of technology. What’s more, the problems we know about will be solved; it’s the unintended consequences and other unknowns that will be the real problems of 2034.

2. Nicholas Negroponte from MIT and One Laptop Per Child: The number of startups working on tough, long-term problems is plummeting; most are working on things that aren’t important. (Part of a big theme from the day: innovation and education in our instant-gratification society is a big challenge.)

3. Steve Kaufer of TripAdvisor: “No one said I couldn’t.” He was talking about the perception that it’s hard to build a big, successful consumer-tech company in Boston. Bottom line for 2034? Just do it. (Other exceptions: Kayak, Wayfair, Zipcar, Harmonix, Bose, iRobot…)

4. Assaf Biderman from MIT and Superpedestrian: Data and analytics from mobile phones and sensors will transform the infrastructure of cities, starting with transportation. Think ride-sharing, pop-up transit, smart electric bikes, and the ripple effects they will have on parking, traffic, lifestyle, and the environment. (Already at work: Uber, FlightCar, RideScout, Bridj, and others.)

5. Early-stage investors Rob Go, Eric Paley, and Semyon Dukach: Autonomous, self-driving (and perhaps self-flying) vehicles will take that transportation upheaval even further. But the broader idea is that machines will become more and more integrated into our daily lives—not a stretch when you see how tethered people are to their phones. Go: “I will be a cyborg in 20 years.”

6. Dukach, the head of Techstars Boston: The physical location of people is becoming less important because of Web and mobile technologies, so rules and structures based around geography will be disrupted. This means, among other things, that governments will lose power. (Think about that when it comes to China’s rise, for instance.)

7. Kenan Sahin of TIAX: We need lots of energy storage, not just alternative energy. He’s in the battery business, of course, and making a better battery is one of the toughest engineering problems there is. What’s more, he said, when it comes to our broader energy future, Silicon Valley is the 20th century; the future is Kendall Square.

8. Education leaders Jean Hammond, Fiona Murray, and Betsy Myers: How to blend science and technology (STEM education, FIRST robotics) with humanities and liberal arts will be a big issue. As will be the demographics of the workforce, and matching the diverse talent pool to global careers, in 2034.

9. Alfred Spector from Google: Think about the huge amount of computing power that will be applied to problems in artificial intelligence, user interfaces, autonomous systems, and education. For the latter, he said, we “have to teach grit” and hard work. For the rest, the challenges will be security and privacy.

10. Terry McGuire of Polaris Partners: “100 will be the new 80,” thanks to regenerative medicine, robotic surgery, implanted pharmacies, and other targeted therapies. I’m shortchanging the healthcare aspects of the conference here, but we heard about everything from personalized medicine to smart prosthetics to digital brain therapies. The real question in my mind is how many people will want to live to 100, by the time 2034 comes around.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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