Every year, IBM publishes its list of five innovations that will change the world in five years. There aren't just predictions, but represent grand challenges that the company intends to take on. As IBM's Chief Innovation Officer Bernie Meyerson once put it to me, "What we're really aiming for isn't to predict the future, but to change the future."  

Last year, for example, the "5 in 5" included combining crypto-anchors with blockchain to secure the world's supply chain and it formed a joint venture with Maersk to help bring that about. It also included a new form of encryption, called lattice-based cryptography and more transparent AI algorithms, all things its scientists are actively working on.

This year's "5 in 5" is different in several ways. First, rather than a horizontal overview, it focuses on one industrial vertical: the food supply chain. Second, rather than focusing exclusively on information technology, it foresees an intense collaboration between the computer industry and other fields. Third, it marks a break from business as usual to a new era of innovation.

Rising to New Challenges

The shift in emphasis in this year's "5 in 5" is no accident, but points to a larger change in the role of information technology itself. Historically, the primary role computers played was to help organizations run administrative functions, such as accounting and payroll. The Internet helped move IT into a more operational role over the past few decades, but Jeff Welser, VP and Lab Director at IBM Research, sees an even greater shift ahead.

"Throughout our history, IBM has been an information company," he told me. We helped our customers run their back office. During the Gerstner years, beginning in the late 90s, we began to help firms run their business processes and we made a major effort to develop the expertise to do that."

"Now," he continues "our customers are increasingly asking for our help running things in the real world and we need to rise to that challenge." He also noted that the shift will entail more than just developing and deploying technologies, but also how his company works with other organizations.

"One of the things that makes this "5 in 5" different is that all of these challenges require us to work with partners," Welser explains. "So it is a call for action for us, but also for those who we collaborate with that these are problems that we are serious about solving."

Reimagining the Food Supply Chain

The 2019 "5 in 5" list imagines how technology will revolutionize the food supply chain from "seed to shelf". For example, using a technology called twinning, which uses a wide array of sensors along with geospatial and weather data to create simulations so accurate that they effectively become a "digital twin," it can help farmers vastly increase yields while reducing environmental costs.

After those crops are harvested, blockchain will help each node in the food ecosystem, from farmers to grocers, to know exactly where each crop goes and where it came from. Walmart, in fact, has already begun this process, using IBM technology to track leafy green vegetables all the way back to the particular farm each piece came from.

Once crops arrive at food processors, food safety inspectors will use next generation sequencing machines combined with massive databases of microbial genomes (IBM has one of the largest), to improve food safety. When food hits the table, improved optics of smartphone cameras will enable AI systems to identify contaminants and to evaluate quality and provenance.

Finally, once the food is eaten, a new catalytic process that IBM has developed, called VolCat, will dissolve plastics down to the basic building blocks of the polymer. This will enable us to recycle many materials that today end up in landfills, improving the environment and societal health.

The company also points out that that by the end of the century the earth's population will increase by 45 percent, while farmable land will decrease by 20 percent. So making our food supply chain more efficient is something that is critical to achieve.

Overcoming Obstacles

The "5 in 5" points to possibilities that are exciting and certainly not confined to food. Blockchain, to take just one example, has the potential for significant impact on logistics across many industries. However, none of these developments are assured, which is why IBM wants to highlight the potential in order to spur action.

"All of these have significant challenges," Welser says. "Some are scientific and we need to work with experts in areas like genomics, microbiology and other things. In other cases, there are scaling challenges. Going from milliliters in the lab to metric tons in the real world is no trivial thing. In others, such as blockchain, there are market challenges and we need to make sure that various market players are properly incentivized."

"For me as lab director, I need to look at hiring more broadly and bring in the expertise we need to overcome these challenges. We also need to partner more intensely than we ever have before. Throughout our history, commercial and academic partnerships have been a big part of our success. Now we need to scale that effort and partner with researchers at other businesses far more broadly than we ever have before."

A New Era of Innovation

We appear to be at an inflection point unlike anything we've since since the 1950's, when we first made the shift from mechanical to digital computers. Today, with Moore's law reaching theoretical limits, the digital age itself is coming to an end. At the same time, new technologies, such as quantum computing, as well as the rapid advancement in fields like genomics and materials science, require a new approach.

"I think the fact that we chose to focus on the "5 in 5" on a particular industry represents a shift in the role of information technology in the years to come," Welser observes. "In the past, we were focused on solving discrete problems that our customers came to us with and we would come up with information based solutions for those."

"Now, we're finding we need to approach problems more holistically," he continues "looking more broadly at entire systems and, in some cases, entire ecosystems, to come up with solutions that involve multiple partners, multiple stakeholders and the public at large."

The truth is that the challenges we face as a society today, climate change and food security being two of the most prominent, are far more complex than anything we've tackled before. Even a company like IBM, with its century of history and multi-billion dollar research budgets, can't go it alone. In the new era of innovation, collaboration is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage.

Published on: Feb 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.