One Step Beyond: WhatNext 2016

Over two hundred student entrepreneurs in a room is a sight to behold. A reassuring sight. It was in this company that I spent this Saturday, at the 2016 WhatNext conference, very successfully organised by Manchester Entrepreneurs, a student society.

I say it’s reassuring because what I told the audience when I spoke wasn’t all positive. I showed them the forecasts from the likes of Martin Ford, Michael Osborne & Carl Benedict Frey, and Boston Consulting. They are graduating into a job market where there is a whole new class of competitor: general purpose artificial intelligence. Pretty much every prediction sees huge swathes of today’s jobs being taken by automatons of one form or another.

Right now, we can’t see what is going to replace these jobs. What new classes of employment there could possibly be that will provide an alternative to the 900,000 plus retail jobs that were only this morning forecast to disappear. Or the millions of other roles that can be competently and more cheaply delivered by machines.

I’m not optimistic about us finding new sources of such large scale employment. But the scale of the attendance at Saturday’s event, drawn from just a few universities, suggests that there’s plenty of people willing to try.

That was the reassurance.

What I would challenge these enthusiastic entrepreneurs on, is where they are looking for inspiration. Where they will find the big ideas that will change the world.

The focus right now remains on all things digital. Particularly on Uber or AirBnB-style business models that leverage the lower cost of interaction that the Internet provides to create aggregators for services and resources.

While there’s clearly still mileage in the digital revolution, I think it’s time for more young entrepreneurs to be looking beyond and engaging with scientists outside of the computing department.

There are trends happening in energy, biotech, materials science, and arguably in political science, that might eclipse the current generation of digital start-ups in terms of their scale and scope. These trends have implications for the way our world looks, transforming the materials from which our clothes, homes, cars and cities are made, and making possible the construction of never-before seen objects. They have implications for the very structure of society: how we live, work and govern ourselves. And they have implications for our food, health, waste, longevity. What it means to be human.

Almost every start-up I meet right now is a combination of wannabe CEO and a coder. What I’d love to see at future meet-ups is more bioscientists, chemists and materials engineers, physicists and yes, political scientists.

Combine them with some of the enthusiasm and drive I experienced on Saturday and we might really be on to something.

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Tom Cheesewright