Three technological earthquakes are breaking up businesses for the better

 
Marc Sidwell
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WE LIVE in extraordinary times. Robots are cleaning floors, accompanying soldiers into battle and just starting to drive our cars. Artificial intelligence is turning phones into personal assistants. The internet is connecting more of us than ever, in more ways than ever. For all the economic gloom, remarkable technologies are transforming our lives for the better every day.

Sometimes, the true scale of that change can be hard to process. Here are three examples that help remind me of how familiar business models are being torn up and reimagined.

THINK OUTSIDE THE OFFICE
It has been seven years since Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams published Wikinomics, but the power of crowdsourcing is just beginning to reveal itself. Utterly inverting the model of the firm, where you must hire and exclusively retain the services of the best people you can, crowdsourcing looks outward and offers up problems to be solved piecemeal by anyone, anywhere. Powered by the connectivity of the web, this counterintuitive approach produces remarkable results and radical price points. 99designs provides cut-price logo design contests; Duolingo teaches languages for free by using lessons to provide translation services for third parties.

FROM DROUGHT TO DATA-FLOOD
Certain businesses, notably publishers, have honed themselves to produce products that match customer demand, in a low-data environment, on the basis of minimal feedback. It is a challenge that requires high levels of skill and sensitivity, effectively reading the minds of readers. But now Kindles and web analytics can provide huge quantities of detailed data on what is read and how. The skills needed to exploit this information, to iterate products, and to adapt to the market signals made visible, are wholly different. The businesses that rise will be the ones that recognise how this changes their priorities, as demonstrated by tiny X5 Music. Just a decade old, it has soared up the digital music charts, partly by letting sales data drive track selection.

MASS PERSONALISATION
The age of millions of cheap identical widgets from China is fading. New approaches are allowing products to be individualised on a mass scale. When something is made on a 3D printer, there is no difference in cost between making personalised versions or identical ones – it is just a question of uploading the right file. London-based Makies, for instance, 3D prints dolls with uniquely tailored facial features. And exciting as 3D printing is, it is by no means the only technology driving the trend to the custom-built. Efficiencies allowed by store-free web businesses with global shipping open up new possibilities, as for Indochino. It will send a tailormade suit to anywhere in the world for less than £250.

This is an age of terror and wonder. To thrive and survive, you need to see what is breaking apart and make the most of the once-unimaginable opportunities rising into view.

Marc Sidwell is managing editor at City A.M.