25 Feb 2017
In business, we tend to focus on the incremental changes we are dealing with every day. The big opportunities always seem too far away to build into our monthly, quarterly or even annual plans. These opportunities, though, are the “moonshots” that completely change the world and generate growth for years to come.
The big changes can come from unexpected places. There are, however, themes that help all of us to be ready to jump-to and lend a hand when we see answers to the biggest questions our generation needs to answer. At the right time, these changes are opportunities we need to be ready to grab.
Google coined the term “moonshots” to describe big, imaginative, investments that were of significant scale and potential impact. Most famously, perhaps, they took on autonomous vehicles before they were popularly regarded as seriously disruptive. I really like the term because it describes both ambition at a global level and tackling things at the edge of our abilities.
I would argue that the moonshots of our time tackle at least one, and often more, of the major challenges of the twenty-first century: environment, living space, energy, resources and health. The danger of the current focus on the information and digital economy is the tendency towards small incremental gains which just aren’t going to cut it in a world that is going to be dramatically different in forty years. That doesn’t mean that our view of innovation today is bad, but there is not enough focus on these major challenges as opposed to incremental gains on what we already do well today (see Where is the digital-fuelled growth?).
The twentieth century’s growth in population (nearly quadrupling to more than 6 billion) and industrialisation of the twentieth century has been both caused by and a cause of our huge lift in economic growth and living standards. At the same time, it has created an undeniable strain on our environment for which transformative technologies can make a huge difference. Technologies scrubbing carbon, cleaning particle pollution, protecting species are almost guaranteed to be developed but they won’t get mass appeal unless the information economy takes the lead to find pathways to market, profitable funding models and integration of what are likely to be disparate solutions.
The same growth in population and urbanisation has put an enormous strain on our cities. As governments struggle with affordable housing, there are few miraculous ways of creating more land near the city centres where a large portion of the population works. While working from home is now a viable part of many a commuter’s week, it is only a stop gap for the social activity of work. The real moonshot here will be to make commuting from a much wider geographic area possible through revolutionary transport technology. As Uber has shown, joining the dots on transport can accelerate the viability of different vehicle options.
Energy security and cost is at the forefront of the minds of many as the race for a low carbon future collides with disasters like Fukushima, gaps in renewable technologies and monumental spending requirements on grid infrastructure. Where there is a great need (cheap energy is a economic growth opportunity) and material friction (unaffordable and inadequate technology) there is a moonshot opportunity.
Even solving the energy gap will not solve the inevitable crunch on many of our planet’s resources. Global supply chains have enabled tremendous gains in economic efficiency, but at the cost of resources (with each stage often adding a layer of wastage). Advanced manufacturing, urban food production and other technologies that shorten supply chains are likely to be in high demand. While many of us who grew-up with the promise of space travel would love it to be a solution to living space constraints, it is far more likely that our century’s space moonshots will be geared towards mineral riches from our near solar neighbours.
Finally, most health moonshots concentrate on new technologies to solve the remaining killers. The opportunity that is often missed is to dramatically reduce the cost of maintaining our overall health. Societies around the world are dealing with healthcare costs that are blowing-out, while recognising the inherent inefficiencies of our current health bureaucracies. Digital solutions that turn the problem on its head could potentially save more lives worldwide than almost any new drug.
We’ve seen moonshots in past centuries bring us efficient transport, industrialisation, modern medicine and, of course, the first footsteps on the moon! While we face many challenges in this century, I believe there are more reasons to be an optimist than a pessimist as long as we are prepared to take-on exciting new moonshot opportunities.