21st century technologies: a future of promise

An exciting period of technological change lies ahead. But how will these new breakthroughs affect economy and society as a whole and what are their implications for policy?
Director, International Futures Programme

The interaction between the evolution of technology and the development of economy and society has always been an important dimension of human history. This applies to the Iron and Bronze Ages as well as to modern times. The transition from the agricultural society towards the industrial society provides the most pertinent illustration of the profound implications which the full diffusion of new technologies can have on family structures, work relations, settlement patterns, economic and political power configurations, and also on behaviour patterns and value systems. The relationship between technology on the one hand and economy and society on the other is not uni-directional. Not only does technological progress result in the continuous change of economic and social structures, but the latter, including the evolution of attitudes and values, has at the same time a major impact on the direction and the speed of technology development. The industrial society of today, characterised by mass production, mass consumption and mass government, is in many ways a complex incarnation of the technologies of the 20th century. But there is no doubt that the profound change in political, economic and social structures has provided the conditions to enable the transition to a new paradigm.

Breakthroughs will drive change

Looking at technology developments at the turn of the 21st century, there seems to be once again a broad range of new technical breakthroughs in reach. Further rapid progress is expected in information technology, new materials, genetics technology, environment protection and energy technologies, to name just a few. New possible combinations and interactions of the various technologies will also be of major importance. Prominent examples include information technology and telecommunications as well as energy and environment technologies. However, only a few of these technologies appear to be pervasive enough or to provide mankind with new basic capacities for them to have a major impact on society.

In a thirty-year perspective, genetics technology as well as energy and environment technologies could hold this potential. But looking ahead towards the next ten years or so, the main driving force for economic and social change will be information technology. After a quarter of a century of gradual development and diffusion, many believe that information technology is on the verge of a new take-off. This is partly due to genuine technology evolution; however, it is also partly the result of changing economic and social structures. These are increasingly adapting to the new organisational and institutional patterns required for the full and most effective use of the new technology, thereby contributing now to the push for further technological progress.

The networked economy

Beyond the convergence of computers, television and telephones, tomorrow's powerful desktop computers will be characterised by the use of sensory input and output devices, by the use of intelligent agent software and, most importantly, an all pervasive network connectivity. In particular, the latter will lead to another important feature of tomorrow's information technology, notably universal "smartness". In the longer term, people will be used to having networks connecting everything. They will experience smart furniture, kitchens and offices, they will live and work in smart buildings, and they will drive sensor-conducted smart cars on smart highways. A further highly promising application is imaging, which will be used for highly sophisticated bar codes, video marketing and virtual goods. Complex technical products, such as automobiles, skyscrapers or aircrafts, will as a routine matter be designed, planned, built, tested and evaluated in cyberspace before being manufactured for real. A decade from now, information technology will in all probability have penetrated every aspect of human activity. Once again, the interaction between the evolution of technology and the development of economy and society will have led to profound changes with regard to when, where and how people work, play and rest; to how, where and what people consume and produce; and to when, where and how they interact with other people, with business, social organisations or government.

Computer-enabled electronic commerce is likely to modify significantly current ways of doing business. Anyone with a computer and Internet access can benefit from the enlarged choice and the competitive supply on the global market place. Performance is difficult to measure in this context, but it is interesting to know that Amazon.com, a well-known Internet bookseller, holds 13 million titles, whereas the biggest bookshops in New York arrive at no more than 180,000. Estimates of world-wide electronic commerce revenues vary sharply, but there is no doubt that they will rise dramatically -- certainly by about 1000% over the next four to five years. Electronic commerce will also lead to modifications in value chains: some will be dismantled, and others re-assembled. Most importantly, there will be a process of dis-intermediatisation. Many intermediate agents between producers and consumers will have to change their role or disappear. Examples include travel agencies, insurance brokers, local bank offices and many sectors of retailing.

Towards a creative society

There will also be major implications for social organisation -- in private life, business and government. The advanced power of computing, coupled with low cost telecommunications, may lead to new kinds of communities -- both real and virtual. The possibility of teleworking, teleshopping and telelearning may result in a move away from the big urban agglomerations and give rise to new developments in settlement patterns. Easy access to interactive global networks together with further simplification of computer use, will enhance the spread of today's embryonic "cyber" communities. In business, there may be a strong tendency towards bi-polarisation of company structures -- a trend towards very big global players on the one side, and very small, highly specialised companies on the other. In business and government, many foresee the end of the traditional hierarchical command and control structures. These may be increasingly replaced by horizontal networks and co-operative teams, providing members with greater freedom and responsibility in decision-making. All this will increase efficiency further, but at the same time, will provide scope for growing diversity, for greater individual choice and for many new opportunities for people's self-determination and self-fulfilment.

Nonetheless, technological advances in themselves provide no foregone conclusion as to the extent and manner in which they will be used. In order to realise the promises of 21st century technologies -- in particular information technology -- individuals, business and governments need to embrace a culture of creativity, experimentation and openness to change. Policy at national and international levels has to ensure that the benefits are shared by society as a whole. It should also see to it that, wherever possible, potential risks associated with the new technologies are controlled and undesirable side-effects contained without unduly impairing technological, economic and social dynamism.

Other stories on this Spotlight on the 21st century

©OECD Observer No 217/218 Summer 1999




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