We are entering a period of both profound abundance and economic decline, futurist Martijn Aslander believes.
This seemingly contradictory statement was one of the key points at the inaugural Finance Indaba presentation in Johannesburg by the Dutch author and "lifehacker" last month. (The term lifehacking refers to ways of simplifying things or processes, or making them more efficient.)
The nature of today’s highly networked and connected world means more of the products and services we enjoy will be free, or just about, unlike previous innovation s that led to greater consumption (think mass-produced cars and computers).
This, he says, will lead to a period of dematerialisation.
It’s now possible to pay US$35 for a smartphone that includes a phone, still camera, video camera, torch, radio, calculator and compass. And, via the Internet, it brings with it access to products that replace encyclopedias, provide free online education and allow you to work remotely.
Aslander estimates there is about $80,000 worth of tools and gadgets in an average smartphone that we don’t have to buy personally any more.
"When it comes to technology, a lot of the things that can be digitised, will be. If you are in the calculator business, for example, you will soon be out of business because someone has developed an app for that."
With greater access to digitised products, more people can tweak them and re-release them.
This means the collective is contributing to innovation and efficiency on a scale that corporates cannot compete with. It also explains how start-ups can disrupt established industries.
In Aslander’s view of the near future, then, we will have free electricity within 20 years as the cost of solar technology goes down and its efficiency goes up. Our cellphones will also be handed out for free, the profit lying in the platform the physical handsets provide for services.
He says: "My prediction is that within five years, most people will have a smartphone, given away by the telecoms companies in exchange for a contribution to medical research, for example, or the solving of difficult puzzles."
Robotics, 3D printing and open-source software are examples of how the Internet is enabling a new DIY movement.
This is one reason Aslander calls the site Instructables.com one of the most exciting places on the Internet. It is a portal for shared plans and designs for just about anything, including wind turbines, water desalination systems and even homemade satellites.
Many businesses are doomed, he says. "There is a bright future for a lot of companies, but also no future for many. It depends on how good you are in dealing with the change that is taking place."
The key is to figure out what business you really are in. "A lot of people in the restaurant business think they are just running restaurants. But they are actually in the attention business. If a waiter is not warm and thinking along with the customer, the restaurant will soon be out of business."
The best defence companies can have against this wave of change is people, says Aslander. The mavericks and out-of-the-box thinkers who were not valued in the standardised, industrialised workplace of the previous century should be nurtured in workplaces, he says.
He says not only is this shared, growing pool of information transforming how we live and do business, but the gains we are making in these areas are exponential, because of the network effect — when a product’s value to the user increases as the number of users grows (think of the telephone). A new user adds value to the entire network.
"A lot of people have never studied or heard about the network effect, but it is the single biggest cause of change happening at this incredible pace," Aslander says. We see this when it comes to the faster adoption of most things in use today.
"Just look at Pokémon Go, which is played by 500m people. To make it happen you need a platform to spread something fast. You need a meme or a social virus. You need excitement. This couldn’t have happened before, because the technology wasn’t there," Aslander says.
"And this is just a game. Can you imagine what would happen with something that will contribute to society?"