Monday, April 19, 2010

Apprehending the Future: Emerging Technologies, from Science Fiction to Campus Reality

Bryan Alexander, Director of Research at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) talks about the various techniques used to decipher emerging technology trends from the perspective of higher education in his article. The author talks about how the Delphi technique has been particularly useful in forecasting technology in higher education.

One of the cases where the Delphi technique is used is in the Horizon Project. Launched in 2002, this project draws on a large body of experts across academia. Over several months, the group identifies trends, ranks their impact, compares estimates, and progressively builds up a profile of emerging technologies. This is then published as the annual Horizon Report. The January 2009 report identified the following technologies:

  • Mobiles (time-to-adoption: one year or less)
  • Cloud computing (time-to-adoption: one year or less)
  • Geo-Everything (time-to-adoption: two to three years)
  • The Personal Web (time-to-adoption: two to three years)
  • Semantic-Aware Applications (time-to-adoption: four to five years)
  • Smart Objects (time-to-adoption: four to five years)
Another application of the Delphi Technique in higher education was the "The Future of Internet III" project by Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University. This study was much broader in scope and had a much longer timeline. The outcome from this exercise is as below:

  • The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world in 2020.
  • The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.
  • Talk and touch user-interfaces with the Internet will be more prevalent and accepted by 2020.
  • Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will remain in a continuing "arms race," with the crackers who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.
  • The divisions between "personal" time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who's connected, and the results will be mixed in terms of social relations.
  • Next-generation engineering of the network to improve the current Internet architecture is more likely than an effort to rebuild the architecture from scratch.
In conclusion, the author states that no technique can effectively predict the future and using a combination of techniques can only help us have some idea of the future. The future is increasingly complex and "black swans" continue to occur and have enormous effects on the future.


As can be seen from the above conclusions, they do not seem to be too radical or innovative in any way but instead seem to tug the line of what is believed to be the general consensus (for instance mobile devices being the primary connecting tool in 2020 or touch and talk user interfaces being prevalent does not necessarily need to be deciphered by experts). This is in fact the major drawback of this technique - that Delphi outcomes can be driven by a desire for consensus, rather than actual agreement, meaning that divergent ideas can and often do get quashed.


  1. I agree with most, except for conclusion number two.

    I believe it comes from a cross-scale category error; in fact, I believe that systemic changes correlate, with a time-lag that is now rapidly decreasing, with individual and interpersonal dynamics.

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