In an era of nonstop innovation, speculation about the future can be exciting but also a little scary. How will new and evolving technologies impact our lives? Does automation mean robots will replace human workers? Will opportunities cluster in a few tech hubs or be spread around the U.S.? And what can companies and employees do now to prepare? 

One interesting thinker who has spent a lot of time reflecting on these questions is Alec Ross. Ross served as convener for the technology, media and telecommunications policy committee on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. He also served as the Senior Advisor for Innovation in the State Department for four years, where he won the Distinguished Honor Award. 

In addition, Ross is the author of The New York Times best-selling book “The Industries of the Future,” in which he shares his roadmap of the industries that will shape jobs and hiring. Keen to learn more about where we might be headed, we recently spoke with Ross to get his take on the shape of things to come. 

The industries that will transform the next 20 years

So which industries will shape technology and culture in the next two decades? 

According to Ross, the game-changing industries fall into five categories: robotics, genomics, big data, the codification of money (as seen in cryptocurrencies or mobile user-to-user payment systems) and the “weaponization of code” (through cyberwarfare, hacking or new forms of surveillance). 

“There is promise and peril in all of these developments,” says Ross. “[But] there are choices we can make about how we raise our kids and how we position ourselves that will increase our viability.” 

Just as automation is changing the nature of work, genomics will reshape understandings of human biology; big data will shift our relationship with information; and coding will alter everything from money to risk management. For Ross, it’s vital that we start expanding this conversation beyond the usual audience of policymakers, entrepreneurs or CEOs so we can all prepare for what’s to come. 

“I feel like people in middle America always have — if anything — more at stake in the industries of the future than elites.” 

Gearing up for adaptation and change

The good news, says Ross, is that adaptation is a fixture of human history, and he argues that the gains of innovation will more than offset potential losses. 

Ross points to the Luddites, who protested automation in English textile manufacturing over 200 years ago: “The idea [was] that women who had spent hundreds of years at the looms could never do anything else.” Such concerns about losing jobs to technology, he says, “tend not to bear out.” 

Similar examples abound, says Ross. He points to the mechanization of farming as another displacement of labor, larger than anything he anticipates might happen as a result of AI: “Half of all [U.S.] labor as recently as 1870 was on a farm.… Today, it's less than one out of every 100 [people]. And we produce more food, more abundant food and healthier food than ever before. ” 

More recently, Ross points to how consumers and workers have benefited from disruptive changes to the transport industry. Ride-sharing apps have challenged this once-cornered market by providing affordable and flexible alternatives. In a sense, innovation has also become more democratized. AirBnB and other short-term rental apps create new types of experiences and also income streams, and technologies like Square enable even the smallest businesses to accept mobile payments. Together, these developments connect people in fundamentally new ways. 

“If you look at who the big winners and losers have been in technological developments over the last 10 to 15 years, they’ve increasingly been open source, collaborative products that enable participation from the outside and the creation of a loyal ecosystem.” 

Ross also predicts a shift away from traditional tech hubs like Silicon Valley, with new opportunities spreading across the U.S. “I think that … we're going to see better supported entrepreneurship in the country's interior,” he says. 

While Ross’s predictions are largely optimistic, he offers some words of caution. 

“Humans are not as easy to update as software,” says Ross, who urges people to start training today for the jobs of tomorrow and to make learning new skills a lifelong activity. “The day that you decide you're done learning — that's it.” 

The skills workers will need most

So, if gearing up for change is important, what does Ross think employers will be looking for in tomorrow’s labor force?

“I think we are never going to run out of demand for effective communicators,” explains Ross. “Communication skills are timeless and cannot be automated, allowing workers to stay relevant in an increasingly technical world.” 

Ross also emphasizes the importance of learning two types of languages: a foreign, spoken language as well as a technical one (e.g., a coding language). Taken together, these will help workers navigate the technical space while facilitating communication in the expanding global landscape. This kind of learning also promotes creative thinking and problem-solving. What’s more, thanks to online learning programs, it has never been easier to study both technical and spoken languages — and often for free. 

Language connects to another important skill: mobility. For Ross, this means the ability to adapt in a globalized world, including moving outside of not only one’s geographic location but also one’s comfort zone to build relationships across markets, borders or cultures — enabling new opportunities. 

According to Ross, “[People] who are adept at playing on the 196 country chess board are going to remain viable. Because even if there's an economic downturn in one part of the world, it's not going to uniformly be the case across the world.”

How employers can prepare workers for tomorrow

While he advocates the importance of evergreen skills, Ross also stresses the need for workers to develop new ones for the future’s big industries. Here employers have a role to play. 

“I think that as much effort as goes into identifying and hiring employees ... there has to be some significant amount of attention that you give to continuing to train your workers once they’re already there,” he says. From courses and conferences to classes teaching specialized skills, employers should prioritize learning opportunities for workers throughout their careers. 

“Building training into your workforce in a higher percentage of time is ... ultimately a smart allocation of resources,” he explains. Investing in meaningful, individually focused training can help companies grow both indirectly, by enhancing employees’ collective knowledge, and directly, by enabling expansion opportunities. 

For example, “if you are trying to expand into China and somebody wants to learn Mandarin, you should support that,” Ross notes. He explains that top-performing companies use this approach to get drastically reduced turnover rates.

“Part of how they reduce that churn is by creating those lifelong learning opportunities … within the four walls of the company,” says Ross. 

The future is bright, but get ready now

We live in an exciting moment. Innovations develop constantly. People, markets and countries are more connected than ever. Opportunities expand rapidly, bringing more into the fold.  

These changes require new skills and workers — and Ross predicts opportunities will stretch far beyond traditional tech hubs on the U.S. coasts. We see this happening already, he says, citing Columbus, Ohio, as a hotspot for self-driving cars and rapid tech-company growth in Salt Lake City

Ultimately, Ross wants to push workers and companies across the country to gear up for the next stage of innovation. “There’s been connectivity for long enough now that we are seeing an entire generation with pretty significant skills.... It’s endemic culturally,” says Ross.

The industries of the future will be here before we know it, so let’s build on the resources we have now to help us compete — and succeed — in the years to come.