Weak Signals

The following is a post I recently wrote for CMEA’s blog. You can also see it here.

At the World Economic Forum this past January, there was a two-hour session of the program devoted to the topic of “Weak Signals.”  This didn’t turn out to be a warning about bad communications infrastructure (as the crackberry addict in me feared), but instead addressed the concept of:

incipient and invisible changes of activity in a given area that are bound to have broader consequences in years to come.

In other words, a weak signal is something that is beginning to happen and could lead to a larger trend. The session explored weak signals across economics, science, and society; from the potential effects of restrictive immigration policy on America’s status as a research powerhouse, to the implications of global connectedness enabled by new communications infrastructure. The purpose of the program was to amplify the weak signals around the group, and by doing so to identify future opportunities while also recognizing possible pitfalls.

As someone who has the privilege of regularly interacting with many of the entrepreneurs, technologists, and designers creating the future, it got me thinking about activity and changes happening now that may point to interesting trends to watch in the months and years to come. Some of these may be things that we witness everyday but deserve more reflection; others may be relatively new additions to our lexicon.

I thought I’d start the conversation and introduce seven of the “weak signals” that have my antennae at attention. I’ll be expanding on them in future posts.

1. Free at last … Entrepreneurs are free at last

Much has been written about the “lean startup” and the ability of companies that leverage Internet technologies to be highly capital efficient. Fundamental enablers of this phenomenon include open source infrastructure, cloud resources, global talent, and new platforms that are available for viral growth and distribution. Extrapolating current trends, it’s clear that launching a software product will eventually approach “free”. What are the economics of this freedom and its implications for the venture capital industry?

2. The rise of “Micro-work”

The Internet is becoming an API onto the world’s most valuable resource, global talent. The ability to access not just the wisdom of the crowd, but increasingly the labor of the crowd has the potential to disrupt business models in every vertical where on-demand talent pools can fulfill the work that used to be delivered by traditional employer arrangements. This phenomenon will also enable an entirely new class of products and services that take advantage of this mode of work. How will the rise of micro-work impact business and the culture of labor?

3. Game Mechanics rule the world

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My hammer for many months now looks a lot like a video game. The social games phenomenon is a testament to the power of well-designed systems to create massively engaging experiences, and provide a window into where the future of media may be headed (the video game industry has been bigger than Hollywood for some time now). Great game designers are experts at exploiting innate social drivers such as status and competition to motivate human behavior and create addicting experiences. These same principles are now being applied to a host of new and unexpected areas far outside the realm of traditional entertainment.

4. Social Data Mining

In addition to being one of the most efficient engines of communication and viral propagation, the social web has a power that’s only just beginning to be understood. The social metrics and behavioral exhaust of the social web, including the country-sized Facebook and countless others stitched across Twitter, MySpace and the Internet is the mother lode of the social gold rush. Embedded in all that data is Nostradamus-like potential to understand the collective activity, preferences, and even predict the behavior of nearly 1/6th of our planet and counting. This data is being mined to inform all kinds of real world applications, with some heady implications.

5. Intelligent Design

As many of our startups in the Valley and around the country will attest, one of the hardest hires today is a strong designer (think UI people, front-end engineers, product designers). In an era of infinite consumer choice, increasingly what separates the winners from the losers isn’t measured in megabits and terabytes, but in the usability that creates unprecedented experiences. But the question remains, what is good design?

6. Digital goes Analog:

Today digital technology for most people still means something that happens behind a backlit screen, whether 50 or 3 inches in diagonal. Increasingly, digital is moving out into our analog world, and becoming the mediating lens through which we experience reality. What opportunities will be created when technology shifts from a tethered and passive tool to a catalyst in the real world?

7. Platforms for the future (and the future of platforms)

It used to be a new platform would come around every 10 years, but these days announcements about a new API spring up every few weeks. These new platforms represent incredible opportunities for businesses to increase distribution and create new customer value. Yet many of these will never achieve critical mass. Is this frenetic activity sustainable and what will be the platforms of the future?

These are some of the things that have me thinking. Would love to hear about the weak signals that have your attention.


2 thoughts on “Weak Signals

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