Catalyst

The regenerative powers of disruption

SHAFI SAXENA | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 31, 2015

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It may be difficult to take, but it is destruction with higher purpose

The Oxford English Dictionary describes disruption as ‘to drastically alter or destroy the structure of something’.

Shiva’s cosmic dance, Rudra Tandava, is the epitome of disruption. He dances not to destroy but to recreate the world with a higher purpose.

Socrates advised, “The secret of change is not to focus all your energy on fighting the old but on building the new.” This is what disruptive companies do. In the process, the vast majority of them make people, industries and governments very uncomfortable. This discomfort persists until a new normal is reached.

The discomfort is a necessary, unavoidable and desirable part of disruption. For within its fractious friction lie the seeds of continued innovation. Truly free disruption follows its own, often unanticipated, design. Amazon, which started off as an online bookstore, has disrupted not just retail but also cloud services, entertainment and now potentially delivery logistics (drones). Alibaba, which started out as an online retailer, has disrupted financing, telecommunication, transaction and so much more. Facebook, which started off as a social network for college campuses, is today disrupting telecommunications companies with mobile messaging and media conglomerates with instant articles.

Technology is enabling disruption at the speed of light. Some disruptions are nice to have (for instance, music streaming, meal delivery), others are cornerstones of human progress (information, energy, security, wellness). I am most excited about disruption in six key areas: Diagnostics, Logistics, Security, Energy, Infotainment and Connected Devices.

Diagnostics

Companies are disrupting the medical establishment by eliminating transaction friction (time, cost, accessibility). Companies such as Illumina are democratising the availability of gene sequencing data to put our medical pasts and potential futures in our hands.

Others are enabling us to track our health by monitoring activity, caloric intake, blood pressure and other wellness indicators.

The old models of medicine will be transformed. Individuals will become their own best doctors by having real-time access to, and expert advice on, their health information. The “Doctor’s Office” will become your connected device screen.

Logistics

I see three key areas of disruption here – transaction, transportation and travel. There are high regulatory costs in all three areas. This is why all three are ripe for disruption.

Transaction: Think of how much transaction friction could be reduced if India actually succeeded in broadscale implementation of the Aadhaar card. Who likes paperwork and red tape? Only those that benefit from it (the middlemen, the enablers, the bribe takers). They will be made exceedingly uncomfortable by a disruption such as Aadhaar. In other areas, companies such as Docusign that are innovating around electronic signatures and digital transaction management will disrupt how individuals and businesses transact. This will, initially, make banks and businesses uncomfortable. Change is never comfortable.

But the benefit of trackable, paperless transactions is clear and therefore inevitable. I can think of so many companies fundamentally altering global transactions: Alibaba, Square, Wealthfront and so on. This is an exciting space to watch.

Transportation: Uber, Ola Cabs, Google’s driverless cars, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. There is much happening in this space. We moved from owning horses to owning cars and having to learn to drive both. We are now moving towards non-ownership where knowing how to drive will be as quaint a skill as learning how to weave baskets.

Travel: Airbnb is the first company that comes to mind. It has transformed the hospitality industry by replacing the hotel with the individual as host. As the world becomes more connected, its appetite to travel grows insatiably. There will be many exciting disruptions to come.

Security

We have moved to a “hack a day” present. This cannot continue as the world puts more and more of its sensitive data online and in the cloud. No one has cracked the code between getting the privacy and security equation right.

Whatever the encrypted answer ends up being, it will make everybody uncomfortable. At first. Until we realise that the disruption is necessary for fruitful individual and orderly societal progression.

Energy

A fossil fuel-free future is within reach. There is great progress in alternative energy generation and in its storage. Solar has become remarkably more efficient so that companies are thinking not just of panels on roofs but entire roads that can power the cars that drive upon them. Tesla, the premium purveyor of electric cars, will make its biggest disruption not with its cars but with the batteries it had to design to power its cars. There are strides being made in wind, in hydroelectricity, in fission. Entire nations are running on clean energy – wind power generates 140 per cent of Denmark’s electricity needs. Norway too produces an energy surplus through clean energy. There is much going on in this field.

Information and entertainment

Google revolutionised access to information. It continues to make governments and content owners uncomfortable. MOOCs (online courses) are disrupting traditional academic institutions and practices; you can attend an MIT class through your smartphone. The mobile phone disrupted how we access information. Who still remembers the card catalogue in libraries? Two out of three digital minutes are now mobile. Think of how disruptive that is not just to PC sales but also to sales of TVs and movie theatre tickets and bookstores and libraries. Netflix transformed how we watch TV. It is disrupting both the cable TV and movie industries. Digital media’s impact on the traditional media industry is transforming news organisations around the world. News Republic, a news syndicator app, is changing how news is distributed, from being broadcast to being “nano-cast.” We are changing the model of news going from one to many (news anchor/author to audience) to many to one (1,500 news anchors to one individual).

Connected devices

The ubiquity of the smartphone is spurring massive disruption in everything from wearables to connected homes and automobiles. A Kochi-based company has created a smart ring, Fin, which transforms the palm of your hand into a functioning keypad. LeChal shoes, from another Indian company, put the power of navigation and fitness tracking in your footwear.

Think of Google’s Nest that turns your entire home into an intelligently connected hub. And now think of how many industries that will disturb: paper maps will become obsolete, so might smartphone screens, so might remote controls, and so on and on. Disruption is never comfortable. But, in hindsight, it is always desirable.

Chief Brand Officer, News Republic

Published on December 31, 2015
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