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Age of disruption

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Articles - January 2014
Monday, December 09, 2013


0114 Disruption 01On a dark and stormy night, Sridhar Solur, director of mobility and cloud services at Hewlett-Packard, is in the Portland offices of software firm New Relic, weighing in on a subject close to his heart. “It’s about the future,” the dapper, jeans-clad Solur tells the audience, most of whom look like the kind of people Dave Chen, a principal at Equilibrium Capital, was describing to me a few days earlier as  stereotypical 21st-century “disruptors”: “Guys who wear hats and have dogs underneath their desks.”

About 370,000 babies are born every day, observes Solur, whose talk, held in November, was the first in a monthly “FutureTalk” series co-sponsored by the Portland Incubator Experiment. Three billion people live in poverty, and about 2 million mobile devices are activated daily.

What’s Solur's point? Mobile technology has “rewritten” Alexander Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs; mobile phones, he observes wryly, have joined food, safety and shelter as essential to human existence. “Tell me one technology that has penetrated everyone’s life like mobile,” he says.

The New Relic audience is silent.

We live in a world where every aspect of human endeavor — science, business, education — is seemingly being overtaken by the tech sector. Or, as New Yorker writer Nathan Heller observed in a recent article about the social changes roiling San Francisco: “At some point, tech stopped being an industry and turned into the substrate of most things changing in urban culture.” But in a time where technological innovation is a constant, there are other major disruptions on the horizon: global warming, economic crisis and radical geo-demographic shifts — namely, the rise of China as a consumer culture.

To usher in the New Year, I asked a few executives in the business, policy and nonprofit sectors to opine on disruption in 2014: What are the game-changing forces (good and bad) shaping different industries? How are businesses and consumers reacting? And what is at stake for the way Oregonians live, work and play? The responses provide a snapshot of social, economic and environmental transformation, loosely framed around a common theme — a theme Solur sounded at the end of his talk. “To survive,” says this mobile futurist employed by an “incumbent” PC company, “every industry will have to transform.”


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