If there’s one certainty we can take from the white knuckle ride that was 2016, this quote from physicist Niels Bohr sums it up: “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

However, while we might not be able to predict what 2017 will hold, there are identifiable waves and patterns building that every innovator should be aware of, resulting from a combination of emerging technology, market forces, and changing behaviours. Each wave is rich with opportunities across sectors and demographics. And each should feature in the thinking of anyone charged with growth, opportunity, relevance, and building or sustaining competitive advantage in this changing world.

Wave #1: Blockchain will strike fear into the heart of the middleman

What's the idea?

Not to be confused with Bitcoin, blockchain is a platform that enables the development and operation of services like bitcoin. At a very simple level, it is a network of trust, that enables a community to transact with extreme confidence.

Blockchain evangelists compare it to an entire internet – ‘the internet of value.’ We have only just begun to realise the value that can be created from it.

Why now?

Was there ever a time in which trust was lower? From the U.S. election to Brexit, the financial sector to fake news, 2016 was a year of rebellion against the status quo. Blockchain could provide the platform for new products and services that address those needs and pains. No surprise then that Bitcoin, which has spearheaded the blockchain’s move to the mainstream, and is currently trading over $1,000 - a three-year high.

What does this mean for innovators?

One very simple thing that blockchain can do is remove the need for a middleman. This opens up opportunities in any sector that depends on trust or verifiability, or where exchange features unnecessary friction. Beyond financial services, consider the recent crop of exchange platforms that are essentially glorified middlemen: Uber and AirBnB, for example. But beyond commerce, what about information? Could blockchain be a disruptive new platform for media? For social good? For democracy? Could it solve the problems of fake news? The possibilities are mouthwatering.

What have others done?

BlockCDN is a blockchain-powered platform that enables people to sell their excess internet bandwidth. Stellar is a blockchain-powered non-profit that provides access to financial services to the previously unbanked in developing economies.

Wave #2: Conversation/voice control will transform the relationship between people, technology, and brands

What's the idea?

After years of underwhelming experience, voice control will emerge as the next interface, transforming the way people interact with products and services – ‘what’, ‘how,’ and ‘where.’

Why now?

Quite simply, Amazon has cracked it with Echo. This is not just a result of the hardware and the AI that sits behind it. The major transformation is where it sits, and thus how it is used. By embedding Echo into the home, it has placed voice control into a conversational context, rather than the purposeful one that Siri and automotive voice control systems operate in. This shift is fundamental because it removes a perceptual barrier between people and technology – Alexa is always present, ready to be brought into the conversation when needed.

The numbers behind it are impressive - third party developers have now added over 5000 new ‘skills’ to Echo’s capabilities - growing 400% in the 6 months from June to December. Meanwhile Gartner estimates that the market for smart assistants like Alexa will grow 500% to $20bn by 2020.

What does this mean for innovators?

For manufacturers, both Amazon Echo and Google Home are open to developers, so think about voice control as a service – and use it as a way to add voice capabilities to any connected product.

For services, consider all the opportunities to create value within the conversational home space. But also – consider what other conversational spaces it can be added to: retail environments for example, or the hospitality industry. 2017 will see voice mainstream in the home, but early movers should keep an eye on how far this will go.

What have others done?

Samsung's SmartThings has integrated with Amazon Echo and Google Home to add voice control to connected devices across the home. FitBit has integrated to enable quick voice checks of fitness data.

Wave #3: Smart prosthetics will change our expectations of wearables

What's the idea?

The next wave of wearable technology will not just offer data and services, it will give us superpowers.

Why now?

A collision of Moore’s law, nanotechnology, AI, and millennial attitudes means that devices that just five years ago were seen as outlandish or intrusive are now possible and desirable.

Consider the Snap Spectacles. They may have been dismissed as a marketing stunt, but seen another way, they are a prosthetic addition to our sense of sight that gives users a superpower. As one early reviewer said, it’s “the power of capturing moments I never had a chance to capture.”

What does this mean for innovators?

Think in terms of superpowers, and ask yourself how you can use technology to enable people to reach beyond their current physical capabilities.

On a sensory level, this could mean wireless headphones that can offer in-ear translation in real-time, or haptic wearables that can enable people to ‘feel’ things that are not actually there.

On a mechanical level, prosthetics can enable people to defy the laws of nature - move faster, reach higher or carry heavier loads. There are opportunities for competitive advantage in fields like healthcare, but what about construction? Or entertainment and gaming - we could invent entire new categories of sports!

What have others done?

Dexta’s exoskeleton gloves enable people to ‘feel’ virtual objects. Inventor Haiyan Zhang has developed a wristband that enables people with Parkinson’s disease to write and draw again.

Wave #4: We will seek out privacy as a service

What's the idea?

As we become more attuned to the amount of data we generate and how it is owned, stored, and monetized, we will re-evaluate the value we place on our own data – and what we get in exchange for it.

Why now?

2016 saw plenty of examples of the looming battles between transparency and utility, privacy and security - from Apple’s battle with the U.S. government, to the Chinese government’s planned ‘social credit’ system. Alongside this, we are increasingly understanding the value of our own data – with services like monzo which helps consumers understand their spending habits – and understanding how corporations like Google and Facebook combine it with algorithms for their own profit. Research by Kaspersky found that two thirds of internet users are concerned about companies collecting data about their internet activities.

What does this mean for innovators?

A new understanding of value means new opportunities for value creation and value exchange. This could unlock new online business models, as people turn against traditional revenue models built on the idea of ‘If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.’

We might create new ways for people to hold onto their data, reengineer the value exchange, help people to monetize their own data. We may find a whole new segment of products and services that are deliberately private.

What have others done?

Handshake is a service that enables people to ‘sell’ their personal data to businesses. Privacy consultancy Silent Circle have developed the Blackphone – a hyper-secure smartphone.

Wave #5: Mixed reality will go mainstream

What's the idea?

The real opportunity lies not in creating virtual worlds, but in adding value to the real world. As the heat around VR fades, it will be “mixed reality” – the ability to integrate digital content into the real world – that will unlock growth and opportunities across a multitude of sectors.

Why now?

The surprise success of Pokemon Go broke down the behavioural barriers to mixed reality – suddenly it seemed acceptable and logical for there to be digital characters at work in our world, viewable using some sort of device. And it made huge commercial returns - retention rates and revenues per user were reported at double the industry average.

Meanwhile, face-swapping filters in Snapchat and MSQRD, Facebook’s recent acquisition, have encouraged us to see our world as a canvas on which to build.

From a technology point of view, 2017 will bring new leaps in technology with the release more handsets enabled with Google Project Tango, and the next generation of the Microsoft Hololens. Both of these are capable of depth scanning, creating a model of a space into which the device can overlay content.

What does this mean for innovators?

When you can measure or evaluate an environment, your creative limitations as an innovator are as broad as “what can I add?” You could add insight – revealing the data that sits behind the real world. You could add instructions, prototypes, entertainment, controls. The initial advances will probably be driven by enterprise, but consumer demand will surely grow.

What have others done?

Lowe’s has used Project Tango to enable customers to ‘place’ furniture into their own homes. Automotive startups and established players like Mercedes and Audi and Jaguar are bringing mixed reality into vehicles, overlaying trip data within the driver’s field of vision.

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The power of each of these waves lies not in the technology itself, but in the way that they have risen through consumer needs and behaviours and companies’ ability to serve them. The successful innovators will be the ones that harness them to deliver equal benefit to the company and the consumer.