Convergence & the Commonwealth
Massachusetts, more than perhaps anywhere else in the world, is reliant upon innovation for powering its economic growth. This means that the shape of the Commonwealth’s economy is constantly in flux, as it changes and morphs along with the rapid pace of innovation. In the 1980’s, the mini-computer industry along Route 128 was king, yet today, it and the companies that boomed during that period are largely defunct. Despite the collapse of mini-computers, Massachusetts has retained its thriving economy because of its ability to adapt to the decline of old industries by evolving, innovating, and generating new industries from its strong base of research and educational institutions, its deep talent pool, and diverse economy.
Often, the decline and rise of new industries is catalyzed by a disruptive innovation which results in the development of new and superior products (for instance, the PC’s that replaced mini-computers) or, through a process where formerly distinct products are incorporated into a single, new package through a process known as ‘technological convergence.’ Prime examples of this Convergence are the evolution of smartphones into substitutes for cell phones, point & shoot/video cameras, music players, PCs, and gaming devices. In a similar manner, entire industries can blur together in a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘industrial or industry convergence’.
These economic and technological phenomena, shorthanded as ‘convergence,’ have shaped and will continue to shape our economy over the coming decades. To better understand these processes, we will delve into the topic of convergence to identify what it is, to highlight some current/ongoing examples, and to identify ways that institutions in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can proactively prepare for future convergence.
As the economic fortunes of Massachusetts are closely tied to innovation and the cutting-edge discoveries being created here each day, by better understanding convergence, identifying ways to invest in it, and finding ways to build on the Commonwealth’s core competencies to evolve new industries, we can create a recipe for continued economic growth and resiliency over the coming decades, particularly as the issues of digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence continue to impact the global economy.
What is Convergence?
Convergence is the increasing level of interaction and overlap between different technology areas and industry sectors, both among and within firms. These interconnections can arise in several ways.
1. Technology Overlap
As an initial example, firms specializing in a sector such as cybersecurity may undertake business with a wide variety of end users, including companies in sectors such as Finance, Retail, and Healthcare. Diverse sets of companies are adopting common technology platforms that are useful to a wide variety of end-use industries, for example, Internet of Things (IoT) and Data Analytics platforms, which are aimed at a broad audience. Firms in previously distinct industries will find themselves faced with new competitors as convergence creates companies with overlapping skillsets that can be applied to the same customer needs. IBM’s 2016 C-Suite Survey found that 54% of C-level executives think more competition will come from companies outside their industry than within it.
2. Talent Overlap
Another manifestation of convergence is the increasing competition among firms in different industries for the same human capital. While specialization is still important, adoption of common technology platforms is causing firms to have similar demands for talent, regardless of what end-use industry they serve. Those same Finance, Retail, and Healthcare companies that are adopting cybersecurity solutions will also need to hire their own cybersecurity staff to utilize those platforms and tools, and will thus compete within the same talent pool.
An early example of this trend is the proliferation of both personal computing and the internet across a wide variety of industries. Today, most companies have an in-house Information Technology (IT) department or purchase services from an IT Services firm that serves a variety of industries. In some cases they have both. This same trend is beginning to happen with Data Analytics, Cybersecurity, and the IoT as well. PwC and IBM already find that there is widespread demand across the economy for workers with Data Science and Analytics skills.
3. Intersection Industries
Convergence is also creating new “Intersection Industries” that combine multiple end users and/or technology areas. These are the areas that we think hold the most promise for transforming our economy through disruptive innovations that will re-make entire industries. Intersection industries can form in many possible combinations, but at their core they are offering new or greatly improved products and services compared with existing industries, enabling greatly enhanced productivity, and often a combination of both. Massachusetts needs to cultivate an environment conducive to forming as many of these intersections as possible.
Examples of Intersection Industries
Below we’ve identified three example industries which are being impacted by convergence or are the creation of convergence. We’ve selected three industries which highlight strong convergence zones here in the Commonwealth, but numerous other examples exist.
i. Digital Health:
Convergence is re-shaping the healthcare industry, one of the Commonwealth’s largest employers, by incorporating a variety of new digital technologies into healthcare-focused products and services. This new intersection industry, commonly referred to as electronic health or ‘digital health’, is having a substantial impact on major sectors of our economy, including:
The healthcare sector, through the increased use of the electronic health records, digital monitoring, and patient engagement technologies;
Government, as a major provider, payer, and regulator of healthcare through driving improvements in patient outcomes, lowering costs, and dealing with privacy and safety concerns stemming from rapid adoption of new technologies; and
Consumer-focused healthcare products, such as the expansion of widely adopted technologies including the FitBit and other ‘wearables’.
Digital Health products and services can also incorporate a wide variety of technologies, including but not limited to:
- Cybersecurity - New tools are needed to protect patient data and privacy, particularly in an increasingly digitized, connected, and mobile work environments;
- Data Analytics - Utilizing increases in computing power, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to gain actionable insight from large volumes of patient and workflow data; and
- The Internet of Things (IoT) - The increase in connected hospitals and medical devices, including connected healthcare products for in-home patient use, will allow for better optimization of workflows and deeper analysis of public health data, not to mention increased engagement with patients both inside and outside of healthcare settings.
ii. Advanced Manufacturing
Far from its past reputation for rote work and hands-on labor, manufacturing in Massachusetts now lies at the forefront of convergence, as a suite of new technologies are enabling rapid advances in productivity, allowing previously impractical or seemingly impossible products to be manufactured. This newly revitalized field is frequently referred to as Advanced Manufacturing.
The IoT is a key driver of convergence in manufacturing, allowing companies to collect data and gain useful insights from connected sensors embedded throughout the factory. Advanced manufacturers use IoT-derived insights to enable predictive maintenance, better inventory management, and increased workflow efficiency.
In addition to IoT, Advanced Manufacturing incorporates many other technology areas, including but not limited to:
- Cybersecurity – As with healthcare, newly connected factories will need cybersecurity to protect equipment, employees, and trade secrets from cyber threats;
- Data Analytics - Factories will increasingly use rich and continuous data to fine-tune the production process;
- Automation/Robotics - Already in wide use, automation and robotics will continue to transform manufacturing as systems far more capable of complex tasks become available. This includes collaborative robots designed to work ‘hand-in-hand’ with human workers; and
- Next Gen Materials - New advances in materials science and manufacturing techniques will allow for entirely new products with capabilities once thought impossible.
iii. Autonomous Vehicles
Autonomous vehicles represent the intersection of transportation, government, and a wide variety of technology areas. Autonomous vehicles are on pace to transform the transportation sector, which will have major implications for government entities which act as transportation providers, regulators, and infrastructure owners.
Examples of technology areas that will intersect in the Autonomous Vehicles industry include:
- Automation/Robotics - Autonomous vehicles will transfer control of vehicle systems currently operated by humans to the vehicle itself;
- Artificial Intelligence - Development of smart, intuitive, and responsive systems that can interact with the built world will be required to enable decision making and obstacle avoidance as well as power advanced analytics;
- IoT - Autonomous vehicles are likely to be connected within large fleets, allowing them to be dispatched on-demand and routed to optimize traffic flow;
- Data Analytics - Advanced analytics will be needed to process and make rapid decisions based upon the data collected by large fleets of autonomous vehicles;
- Cybersecurity - Large fleets of autonomous, connected vehicles will create a need for rigorous, built-in defense against a wide range of cyber threats; and
- Photonics & Advanced Sensors -Highly capable sensors, including photonics-enabled LIDAR systems will be necessary to provide autonomous vehicles with a complete and accurate picture of their surroundings and environment.
Preparing for Convergence:
Convergence is already re-shaping some of Massachusetts’ largest economic sectors, perhaps most notably the Commonwealth’s world-class healthcare industry. More convergence is yet to come and Massachusetts must be prepared if we are to take full advantage of the opportunities it presents.
Organizations and individuals around the state will need to consider convergence when making a variety of decisions over the coming years.
- Convergence will change our education and training systems by expanding formerly specialized technical courses into the mainstream, beginning at the college level, but eventually filtering down into K-12. Institutions around the state need to begin planning in advance, alongside and in consultation with private-sector employers, on ways to identify and disseminate what will eventually become ubiquitous skills. In their book The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT argue that people will need to develop a broader set of intellectual and interpersonal skills in order to work alongside increasingly capable machines in nearly all industries.
- People will need to think about careers in new ways and shift from having careers in a given industry to having a widely applicable set of skills that can be applied in new industries as they arise. The days of spending an entire career with one firm are largely gone and it is likely that the days of spending a whole career within a single industry will be numbered as well. The World Economic Forum expects jobs related to specialist technical skills will increase rapidly as companies across all industries seek such workers to help them apply new technologies to transform their industries.
- Convergence, especially when it happens rapidly, will increase pressure on regulators to adapt to shifting industrial structures, such as a potential shift from individual car ownership to shared fleets, and determining which companies or technologies do/do not fall under a given regulator’s purview. As these new sectors emerge, privacy and the security of personal information will also be a top focus. Autonomous Vehicles, Advanced Manufacturing, Digital Health, Financial Technology or ‘FinTech’, and other intersection industries present myriad opportunities for economic growth, but new requirements will also be needed to ensure that citizens’ physical and digital security are protected. Convergence means regulatory bodies will need to react more quickly and flexibly than ever before to keep up with this quickly changing tide.
- Businesses will need to consider convergence when making investment decisions as their firms find themselves faced with previously unimagined business opportunities, but also as they confront new competition. Not all firms will be agile enough to transition into new industries, but there are plenty of existing examples of companies moving into new industries. For example, internet search and consumer electronics companies are moving into the transportation space, as they utilize their existing capabilities in artificial intelligence and software in new ways to develop autonomous vehicles. To pull this off, companies will need a skilled and agile workforce that can tackle challenges in multiple spaces. A convergence-ready workforce will position them to take advantage of new opportunities, but open up even fiercer competition for talent as companies in previously distinct industries will find themselves fishing in the same talent pool.
- Supporting institutions where convergence occurs is another important step. Public-private initiatives should continue to foster the intermingling of people, research institutions, businesses, and technology disciplines. Supporting the creation of centers where cutting-edge R&D occurs, as well collaborative workspaces which bring together innovators from across separate industry sector or technology disciplines are a few potential steps. Educational institutions and employers can continue cooperation around the design of academic and workforce training programs, to better prepare works for the needs of the 21st century economy.
Perspectives on Convergence:
In the following section, several thought leaders in business, academia, and the non-profit space express how they are planning for convergence and how they think others can, so that Massachusetts maintains and builds upon its position as a global leader in innovation.
Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, comments upon how firms can adjust to and gain from convergence as well as why Massachusetts is well positioned to benefit from it.
Dr. Joseph E. Aoun, President of Northeastern University, submits an excerpt from his new book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, which makes the case that universities need to reform their offerings to better prepare students for a world with increasingly capable machines permeating ever more areas of the economy, including white-collar occupations formerly thought safe from automation. This trend is itself a manifestation of convergence, both among technologies and industries. Dr. Aoun’s book lays out a path forward for institutions of higher education in this new era, one that focuses on building skills and competencies that are hard to automate, which will better prepare people to work alongside intelligent machines.
Steve Vinter, Co-Founder of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), comments upon three technologies that are driving convergence - cloud computing, data analytics, and cybersecurity - and writes about the need for K-12 education to build general skillsets in these areas among all students, not just those planning for careers as engineers or scientists.