As the Head of Horizon Scanning for Innovate UK, I have an amazing job. One of the best things is getting to talk to inventors and experts about new technologies that are going to have a big impact on all our lives.
Some are right at the cusp of science fiction and knowing there are discoveries and opportunities around the corner makes me excited for tomorrow’s world. But one of the questions I am asked most often is ‘which technologies will be most important in the future?’.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the tech for an accurate crystal ball, so the answer to this question is inherently uncertain. However, we know from experience (and research!) that the innovations that have the most impact on society result from multiple technologies coming together in a perfect storm.
For example, the smart phone resulted from the combination of:
- touch screens
- widespread 3G (then 4G)
- and many more.
If any of these technologies had not been sufficiently developed, then it is unlikely that smart phones would be as ubiquitous and society-changing as they are. Imagine a world without the internet at your fingertips or satellite navigation when you are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city!
Why classify technologies?
To make sure the UK is ready for the next smartphone (mRNA vaccine, autonomous vehicle, or service robot) we need to make sure we support development of all the fundamental technologies they require.
Technology development is a long game, with years or even decades of work before new goods and services are possible. By breaking down the fundamental technologies into categories, we can track, measure and support the development of all key technologies. We can ensure that every key element is supported, not just the flavour of the month.
How did we come up with the seven technology families?
My team (and its predecessors) have identified and supported emerging technologies for more than a decade. We regularly analyse technologies so we can figure out how best to support them. In recent times the number of technologies we track has expanded from hundreds to thousands, so our classification of technologies has also had to evolve.
When we mapped key technologies back to their ‘parent’ technologies, we found that they fell into seven major groups. These groups led to the seven technology families highlighted in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) innovation strategy.
So what are the seven technology families?
In alphabetical order.
Advanced materials and manufacturing
New and novel materials with interesting and useful properties help us solve big societal challenges. This includes a wide variety of advanced materials such as:
- metamaterials with unique tunable electromagnetic properties
- 2D materials only one atom thick
- self-healing materials, and as someone who has to drive on country roads after rainy winters, I find this last one particularly appealing!
As well as developing advanced materials we need to be able to produce them at a useful volume and scale and this also needs new technologies and specialist processes. Doing so will allow us to survive in the harshest conditions, investigate the depths of the oceans, transport the fuels of tomorrow, and much, much more!
AI, digital and advanced computing
The combination of data with digital and computing technologies has enormous potential for improving the economy and society. From fraud detection and medical diagnosis to creating new art and music artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies can enhance their operation.
However, to take full advantage of these technologies we also need high performance computing (HPC) power. The UK needs to stay at the cutting edge as HPC moves from petascale to exascale, as well as developing quantum computing and alternatives to electronic digital systems.
Bioinformatics and genomics
Genomics is the study of an organism’s DNA and to understand its secrets a suite of ‘omics’ technologies characterise the relationships between the genes, proteins and metabolites that are the basic building blocks of all life.
Large-scale genomics is combined with sophisticated bioinformatics, which uses tools from the AI, digital and computing family, to understand large and complex biological data sets. This family has given us the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and the COVID-19 messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines.
Unlocking the full potential of these technologies in the 21st century will help enhance human health, improve the environment, sustainably feed global populations and more.
Engineering biology is pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s the convergence of physical sciences and engineering with biology and is helping the UK move towards a bio-based economy. This has led to innovations like:
- plastic-free packaging
- improved silk fibres for sports clothing
- life-saving health therapies.
This group of technologies also includes nature-inspired solutions (biomimetics) that lead to the creation of new materials, applications and processes across a range of sectors. The benefits of engineering biology are already being felt across the UK economy and will continue to create exciting business growth opportunities as well as helping us reach our climate goals.
Electronics, photonics and quantum technologies
The electronics, photonics and quantum technologies family pops up in daily life more often than you may think. These technologies are the hardware and embedded software that allows products and processes to:
- sense and measure
- be powered
- have intelligence
- be controlled and automated.
Research and development in this technology family spills over to all sectors and all other technology families. For example, semiconductor chips are already the basis of all devices, photonics is becoming increasingly important to sensing and information transmission. Quantum technologies are protecting communications and allowing us to measure things we couldn’t previously.
Continuing innovation in electronics, sensing photonics and quantum technologies is essential to furthering artificial intelligence capabilities, delivering the internet of things (IoT), creating autonomous vehicles, and enabling smart diagnostics for healthcare.
Energy, environmental and climate technologies
Energy and environmental technologies will be critical to achieving our net zero goals and protecting our natural world. They enable cleaner ways to produce, store, distribute and use energy and captured greenhouse gases. This includes technologies for producing and using hydrogen as a fuel, nuclear fusion, and novel battery chemistries.
In addition to technologies that will help us enhance our environment and protect biodiversity, this family also includes exploring the possibilities of geoengineering. It is developing new carbon negative technologies that may enable us to cool the climate and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Robotics and smart machines
The use of robotics and automation is no longer confined to specific uses in factory environments. Our future will see increasingly autonomous, reconfigurable and scalable smart machines, often operating alongside people in our jobs, or helping at home.
Elements such as reconfigurability, autonomy, human-machine interfaces and the use of soft robotics for solids handling are currently seeing big breakthroughs. Our challenge now is to build on the UK’s robotics strengths and help businesses apply them across our lives at home, at work and at play.
The government’s build back better plan, supported by BEIS’ innovation strategy has put technology at the heart of the UK’s post-pandemic recovery. My colleagues and I at Innovate UK will play our part by supporting innovators and industries to develop, adapt, adopt and diffuse technologies that benefit the UK economy and society.
But a word of caution. With the development of powerful new technologies comes a vital need to use them responsibly. As well as developing these technologies and supporting the opportunities they will create for UK businesses, we need wide ranging engagement across society to ensure creation of the right rules, regulations and ethics for their development and use.
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