With a number of disruptive technologies on the cusp of being mainstream, the future is now. The sooner businesses can strategise accordingly, the sooner they can meet the challenges and opportunities of our modern world, and make New Zealand a front-running country. On the other hand, if businesses are not watching closely and adapting rapidly, they will find their competitive advantage already gone.
This is according to Frances Valintine: futurist, entrepreneur, and founder of The Mind Lab by Unitec. More recently, Valintine has been gearing up to launch Tech Futures Lab, a workshop-based education offering focusing primarily on the proliferation of exponential technologies, and designed to help businesses prepare for the future.
You can predict what’s going to happen, to a point
According to Valintine, it takes 20 years for technology to be an overnight success, and as such history can define what’s going to go mainsteam in the foreseeable future.
“The really good thing about technology is its one of the sectors where you can make predictions very easily. The forecast of what’s going to happen is almost a mathematical sequence,” she says.
Therefore, while businesses may not know how technology will impact their particular sector, they can begin to understand what technologies will be mainstream within the next two years and use this knowledge to their advantage, Valintine says.
At present, a number of technologies are emerging with disruptive force, impacting every industry and every type of business, including cryptocurrencies, personalised devices, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, autonomous cars, and robotics.
“I don’t think there’s any sector or any organisation that isn’t affected. It doesn’t matter if you’re charitable, you’re an enterprise business or a small retailer, there’s an element of every organisation [that is impacted by technology],” Valintine says.
New Zealand businesses are not as prepared as you may think
Kiwi businesses are known to be keen adopters of new technologies and ready to try different approaches. However, they’re not be as informed or proactive as they could be, according to Valintine.
“When I’m working with organisations, there is generally a very low awareness of what major impacts are just around the corner. Sometimes [business leaders] can talk about [emerging technologies] in a removed sense, but they’re not actually thinking about how they may impact on their business," says Valintine.
“Right now, New Zealand’s potentially slipping back into the mid-stream. There’s very few companies that are truly exploring the impact [of technology]. What we need to do as a country is be very mindful of what our competitive advantage will be in the future," she says.
“The advantage is if we get in early enough we can start producing agile businesses in this space, businesses who can actually pick up and drive forward innovative products,” she says.
Finding a competitive advantage in a changing world
Businesses need to think about what they’re offering in a new light, and identify their competitive advantage in a world where technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence can fundamentally change their industry.
Valintine encourages business to ask themselves, what are your competitors doing, and how will you respond to a force or technology that will entirely re-shape your industry? This could be Bitcoins for banks, apps without physical assets for hotel chains, healthcare wearables for personal trainers, driverless cars for transport providers, or 3D printing for wholesalers.
“If you’re an airline you cannot think, 'I’m in the business of aviation', you have to think, 'I’m in the business of experience',” Valintine says as an example.
There is real potential here, if we move quickly
Valintine places a lot of importance on education and paying attention to what is happening on a global scale as well as in New Zealand. She says it is beneficial to dedicate resources to understanding emerging technologies, and trialling different approaches.
New Zealand SMEs, which often run very lean, are unable to commit a significant amount of time and resources to the cause and are generally very risk adverse. However, these businesses do have the ability to explore various avenues at once.
“When you’re a mid-sized business, you can have small projects going on with very short cycles, so you’re only investing as much as you can, testing, trialling and fixing, moving ahead in a very agile way. This is a really sensible approach,” she says.
Furthermore, “Mid-sized businesses are typically big enough to dedicate resources to looking at innovation, and they also stand to make the most by bringing something new to market - whether it’s a small website feature which enables better data analysis of customers, or a fundamentally new product or service to launch, the gains are significant,” she says.
It’s about giving your customers what they didn’t know they needed
According to Valintine, some businesses justify a lack of commitment to risk and innovation by saying they don’t know what their customers want. But success is found in understanding current trends and behaviours, and giving people what they didn’t know they need.
“Actually, most people have no idea what they want. It’s not until we have it that we wonder, how did we ever survive or work without this? And that’s a core feature of any successful tech company, or any company using technology to advance, they’re trying to find out what their customers need, and not asking the customers what they want.
“You cannot do a focus group for innovation. The one thing about technology is nobody knows what they want until it’s available. Nobody knew they needed an iPad until suddenly it was available,” she says.
Instead of making excuses, start thinking differently
All businesses, even those that have invested a great deal of time, money and resources into capital infrastructure that is becoming obsolete, have the ability to find a point of difference and experience significant success, according to Valintine.
It’s about approaching business with a fresh set of eyes, recognising the emergence of rising competitors and new technologies, and the ripple effect this has on customer behaviour and quality of life.
“We’re moving rapidly into a different paradigm from what we know to what we’re prepared to accept,” she says.
Valintine says up-skilling, education and provocative discussions are necessary to help businesses, and New Zealand on the whole, flourish.
“Sometimes you have to have these very bold views about what could be achieved if we took more of a risk up front, and make more of an investment into technologies we know are definitely coming.
"I just hope we have enough bold thinkers here that will actually stand up for some of those strategically imperative decisions that will impact multi-generations. We could be a leader in many ways,” Valintine says.