"History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas." As President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 24, he took a moment to look back, pointing to the innovations that have arisen from times of difficulty: the railroad tracks, laid across the country in the midst of the civil war; the public high school system that emerged from the Industrial Revolution; the GI Bill that sent a generation to college. Obama's theme was clear: Times of economic difficulty can inspire extraordinary innovation. And now, even as the markets continue their roller-coaster ride, he described a time "to put in place tough, new common-sense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation and punishes shortcuts and abuse."
We talked to several trend-watchers and futurists about the kind of innovations they expect to come from this recession. Along with Obama, they focused on themes of energy and health care, with technology and computing rounding out their wish lists. All saw the opportunity to reframe problems to come up with radically new solutions. "There's a reason why they call them market corrections," says author and futurist David Zach. "Things that don't work, are inefficient, out of date, or bloated often need to be bypassed." He sees this scenario developing in realms such as the Web, with access to high-speed Internet overcoming geographical barriers to allow ever greater marketplace participation.
On the energy front, the big advances will be in biofuels and renewable sources. Giant turbines will harness the power of ocean currents. Biofuels that won't drive up global food prices are being made. Technology will repurpose the energy from the human body to recharge our cell phones and music players. Super-charged batteries that hold more juice and require fewer charges will power electric cars and laptops.
Innovations in Health Care
In health care, self-diagnostic technologies that can be used at home will replace costly doctor visits. Heavy, unwieldy medical equipment that until now has been laboriously wheeled around hospital floors is being transformed into portable machinery that can be used at home or in a remote village. New nanotech and biotech drugs will cure decimating diseases. And the health-care system itself will be overhauled, with digitization of patient records cutting costs and increasing transparency and reliability of care. Glen Hiemstra, author and founder of Futurist.com, wants to see universal coverage, while allowing folks to purchase insurance privately. "Health care is at the center of almost all business-labor issues. Moving away from employer-provided health care will free us like almost nothing else I can think of," he says.
Given the subprime debacle, the ensuing economic meltdown, and the current ups and downs of the markets, it's perhaps not surprising that many of our experts are predicting drastic changes in the world's financial systems. "I think we're going to see the creation of new instruments and tools to value, trade, and share wealth and currency," says trend-spotter and journalist Josh Spear.
Of course, longed-for innovations don't always make it to the market. Radically new ideas for transportation were on most of the futurists' wish lists, but the chances of a high-speed cross-country train within the U.S. still seem slim (we're also still waiting on that flying car). But, as vehicle sharing and trackable, more reliable, and eco-powered buses gain popularity, chances are that better urban transit will become a reality.
Looking into the future is uncertain, messy work, but if businesses view the current economic crisis as an opportunity to innovate, we may still be marveling at these breakthroughs decades from now.
Joseph is an innovation and design writer for BusinessWeek, based in the Chicago bureau.