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What is a Disruptive Futurist?

Ross O. Storey | Jan. 16, 2009
MIS Asia editor Ross O. Storey asked Ian Neild to explain his job.

The unique title Disruptive Futurist must be one of the most unusual in the IT industry, but thats what global network services provider BT bestows upon Ian Neild.

In the Asia Pacific, BT Global Services employs more than 27,000 people across 17 countries specialising in wireless, routing and switching, unified communications, and security.

MIS Asia editor Ross O. Storey asked Ian Neild to explain his job.

What exactly is a leading Disruptive Futurist, how did the role come about and what exactly does such a person do with BT? What is the BT Technology Timeline (any background)?

I am a Disruptive Futurist for BT, a futurist looks at where technology and social trends are going and looks for the impacts these will have. Im classed as leading by some through the technology timeline that I write and the talks I give around the world. I have gotten here by learning how to listen, read, see and think.  

The technology timeline (latest version at is a list of technological changes along with their impacts in various fields. The document is redone about every four years. I co-edited the 2001 version and edited the 2005 version; the 2009 version is being released around March 09.  The 1993 version of the timeline listed 200 predictions that would be here by 2020; many of these have already arrived and a selection of the predictions that have already happened are listed below. At the time, many were seen as far-fetched and fanciful ideas.

•    Engineered organisms for production of chemicals for use in applications such as waste disposal

•    Many new forms of plants

•    Blue semiconductor lasers

•    Life long learning is the normal

•    Distance learning widespread and virtual universities

•    Real time language translation for print and voice

•    Broadband networked electronic libraries

•    Solar cells with efficiency > 30 %

•    Common use of solar cells for residential power supply

•    Colour video displays with > 2000 by 2000 pixels

•    Large wall hung high definition displays > 100 inch

•    Electronic notebook with contrast equivalent of paper even when powered off

•    Many people sharing a virtual space

•    Speech dialling

•    Atomic customization of material

You have to remember the landscape for 1993, the idea of processing, displays, storage and communication, was totally different to what we have today and what we will have in 2020.

Please explain further how you expect that: over the next 60 years we can expect the existence of living, genetically-engineered teddy bears, emotional jewellery and even electronic brain implants brought about by nanotechnology.

If you consider the advances being made in technology today, which of course is not just about electronics, but includes biology, chemistry and the manipulation of material at the atomic level, then, potentially, humankind has the ability to create the items listed above.  The timeline doesnt necessarily condone or approve of the concepts in the predictions, but simply raises their possibility.  A genetically modified creature could be created that would act like a living teddy bear, items we wear as jewellery could react to our own or others emotions, and we may be using brain implants to either repair brain disorders or improve our own brains. The questions for the future are: do you think this is reasonable in this time frame and if not, is it too soon or too late; will it be a scientific, legal or cultural barrier to adoption that will prevent this; and what are the effects it may have?


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