Epidemics, Inequality, and Narcissism: Tech Agenda 2015 Highlights

If you were at the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology on Tuesday afternoon, you were in for a treat.

Xconomy’s Tech Agenda 2015 conference hit on some of the most important trends to watch for in the coming year—across industries as diverse as robotics, security, e-commerce, venture capital, and big data. And from perspectives that were as diverse and authoritative as any event I’ve attended.

We made it a point not to talk about “women in tech” at this event, but to let the program speak for itself. And speak it did. Here are seven highlights:

1. There is an “epidemic” of entrepreneurship going on at MIT. Lita Nelsen, director of MIT’s technology licensing office, noted that students and post-docs are all thinking about starting companies and joining small organizations out of school. It’s a huge shift from a decade ago, when most job-seekers flocked to big companies if they could. MIT, it seems, is not immune to “millennial workforce” trends.

2. Narcissism of tech consumers will get worse, not better. You can thank that element of human nature (along with addiction) for the rise of social media, photo sharing, and other self-centered, time-wasting technologies. Katie Rae, managing director at Project 11, said the trend will continue to influence the kinds of products and companies that flourish. She also lamented having to hear 22-year-olds talk about their “opportunity costs.”

3. Technology may drive more wealth inequality in the U.S., but less overseas. It’s hard to separate all the factors involved, but Susan Hunt Stevens, CEO of WeSpire, said (and her panel seemed to agree) that the tech industry is contributing to the income gap between the haves and have-nots, rather than closing the gap. I took her comment to mean that technology would be more of a leveler internationally, which makes sense if you think about the rise of poorer countries.

4. Speaking of overseas, that’s where U.S. expertise in drones is headed. And will continue to go, unless FAA regulations become more favorable to developing and testing unmanned aerial vehicles. That came from a fireside chat between CyPhy Works’ Helen Greiner and UMass Lowell’s Holly Yanco, both distinguished roboticists.

5. Data storage and networking are still hot sectors. You might think there’s nothing new under the sun in these well-established markets. But Ellen Rubin, co-founder and CEO of ClearSky Data, noted that traditional vendors (think IBM or Oracle) are “in distress” as they try to adapt to seismic shifts in cloud computing and big data. In other words, things have changed so much in IT that there’s plenty of room for upstarts with products built specifically for cloud-based systems.

6. E-commerce and product marketplaces can be a grind. Boston-area firm The Grommet made more revenue on Cyber Monday this week than in all of 2011. That’s great news for the product launch site, but it took a lot of work to get to this point. CEO Jules Pieri said building her company’s consumer base was very challenging for the first few years. Lesson: there are no shortcuts to finding a loyal audience, no matter what it is you make.

7. The gender gap in tech needs to be addressed by education and marketing. There’s no denying that men and women are different. Google’s Fernanda Viégas showed a real-time visualization of most-viewed YouTube videos around the U.S.: a mixed bag if you look at all the data. But slice it by gender and in just about every state, the top video was a “Star Wars” trailer for males, and a Taylor Swift song for females.

The closing “predictions” panel (pictured) made a good point—that opportunities for women in technology can be driven by education and marketing. Not just exposing girls to math and science at an early age, but doing it in a way that’s geared toward their interests—making an impact on people’s lives, say, versus making weird sci-fi gadgets or games.

One thing the panel didn’t say is that a diversity of perspectives and experience is beneficial to all. They didn’t need to. Here’s hoping that in the years to come, the tech industry won’t need to hear it, either.

Photo by KeithSpiroPhoto courtesy of Kendall PRess.

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