Macro trends HP is tracking: Urbanization, globalization, demographics

HP Inc. CTO Shane Wall weighs in on three big macro trends that are shaping the company's long-horizon strategy.

There's no debate that senior IT needs to think strategically and with the future in mind. But just how far out should you be looking? Well, if you take a lesson from HP Inc. CTO Shane Wall, you'd want to gaze 30 years ahead to understand the macro trends that will impact your business.

At the company's Global Partner Conference in Boston a few weeks ago, Wall laid out three macro trends that are on his radar.

Mass urbanization -- in which the population becomes more and more concentrated in big cities -- garners his attention because it "will have a profound effect on the types of products that we'll be buying, how we manufacture them, how we distribute them," Wall said.

According to the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world's rural population will peak around 2020. It's now at 3.4 billion and is expected to drop to 3.1 billion by 2050. Cities, meanwhile, will see explosive growth. At 3.9 billion in 2014, city populations are expected to reach 6 billion by 2045, according to UN DESA. Perhaps more meaningful than the simple shift from rural to urban is that urban populations will be increasingly clustered in "megacities" -- those with more than 10 million residents. In 1970, there were just two megacities: Tokyo and New York. In 2014, there were 28, and that number will continue to grow. UN DESA's 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report projects that by 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities.

HP's CTO also has his eye on hyperglobalization, or the rapid growth of trade between countries. Wall describes hyperglobalization as the idea "that things should be able to distribute immediately and quickly." While academics debate the pros and cons of hyperglobalization, there is collective agreement that hyperglobalization is characterized by a changing level of influence by individual countries as companies increasingly do business with customers outside of their own country. Its velocity is influenced by technological developments, and its impact on the supply chain will be dramatic. Products will be "instantly available worldwide," Wall said.

The third macro trend? Changing demographics. While Millennials have not yet fully assumed their position of power in the workplace, Wall is looking ahead to what happens when Millennials retire and transform into "silver spenders," people who have had technology at their fingertips for their whole lives and who "have tremendous expectations of what technology will do," Wall said. Right on the heels of the Millennials is Generation Z.

Just distributing the world's products on the ocean takes between 5% and 10% of the world's oil supplies.
Shane WallCTO, HP Inc.

While the exact marking posts for the two groups differ depending on who's doing the measuring, marketers often define the first group as those born between 1980 and 1995 and the latter group as those born between about 1996 and 2010. From a technology consumption perspective, while Millennials embrace the broadcast-like Facebook and Twitter, Gen-Zers tend to favor more personal platforms such as Snapchat and messaging apps that don't leave a trail, according to a study by The Center for Generational Kinetics. And, the research found, the Gen-Z group tends to be more concerned than Millennials about privacy and security when using credit cards, but less when paying for things using mobile apps.   

"The technology will be part of how [members of Gen-Z will have] grown up," Wall said. "The tablets or the phone will be in their hands and they'll have the expectation about how technology will solve problems."

Blended reality

Against the backdrop of these macro trends, HP has developed a lofty vision of how it can help solve the world's big problems. The foundation of the vision is a concept it calls "blended reality," which Wall describes as "the idea that our analog world, our physical world, the people, places and things that we are today are inextricably entwined with our digital world." An interweaved analog and digital world provides the framework for solving big societal problems, Wall said.

Wall points to 3D printing as the first example of how blended reality can mitigate problems the world will face. (HP, of course, sells a line of 3D printers.) "In a world that is increasingly concentrated in cities, that is distributed in a global environment ... we want to be able to do ... digital manufacturing. [You'd] move from a world of traditional manufacturing ... into a world where we design it once, in a digital way, send it out instantly for the local environments, and manufacture it and print it on demand," Wall said. 

Today, Wall explained, products are designed in developed markets and then sent to emerging markets to be manufactured; after production, they're shipped back to developed markets for consumption. "Just distributing the world's products on the ocean takes between 5% and 10% of the world's oil supplies," Wall said. "So imagine a world in which you can send the products digitally and print them locally." The impact on energy consumption alone will be dramatic, he said.

Wall pointed to IoT's role as an enabler in a hyper-connected world. "IoT is interesting because it becomes another fantastic addition," Wall said. For HP, that role means being able to track, through the supply chain, physical things that today are not tracked -- like the paper we print on. Wall extended that concept into the 3D world. "Imagine [having] 3D watermarks embedded in the parts that we manufacture," he said. "And that means simple things like wheels, car parts, all sorts of ... things that you manufacture … can be uniquely tagged."

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