In-search-of-the-next-big-thing-301Opportunities are often right before our eyes, but few of us can see them.

The super-connected nature of the Internet is giving us a far different “opportunity landscape” than ever before in history. Unlike the painstakingly slow 400-year period between DaVinci’s drawings of flying machines and the Wright Brother’s first flight, development cycles in the digital era can now be measured in hours and minutes rather than decades or centuries.

Killer apps of the past, like online search, email, and ecommerce, now over a decade old, are becoming mature industries. More recent innovations like social networking, smartphones, and mobile apps are also becoming old news.

Every major industry of the past provides the foundational underpinning for industries of the future. It is in this rubble of business-past, with generational lifespans shortening to less than a decade, we find our next era of global enterprises. But what will they be?

Here are 14 possible options.

So What’s Changed?

According to Business Insider, in 1999, there were 38 million broadband Internet users worldwide. Today, there are 1.2 billion people getting broadband Internet access on their phones.

The number of smartphones sold now exceeds the number of PCs sold. That transition happened last year.

Globally today there are 5.6 billion “dumbphone” users compared to 835 million “smartphone” users. In the U.S. we are already about halfway through the process of converting over to all smartphones. Still, 12% have no cellphone at all.

Globally, the dumbphone conversion cycle is just getting started. Tablet sales will pass PC sales in 2-3 years.

Mobile apps are now a $10 billion marketplace growing over 100% per year. The number of available apps through Apple and Android now exceeds 1.2 million with over 34 billion downloads so far between the two of them.

Angry Birds alone has had over 600 million downloads. “Draw Something” was launched 6 weeks ago and already has over 20 million downloads and is generating over $100,000 per day. It’s now the number one app in 79 countries.

To reach the 1 million user milestone, it took AOL – 9 year, Facebook – 9 months, “Draw Something” – 9 days.

Both the speed and pervasiveness of broadband connections continue to climb rapidly.

Crowdfunding will be huge, for better and worse.

Adding Crowdfunding to the Mix

With the U.S. Senate’s passing of the new crowdfunding legislation we are about to see another huge variable come into play.

Startups will be able to raise up to $1 million per year using online sources. While some view this as an instant money gravy train, it will be far from that. The true rules about what works and what doesn’t will take years to define.

That said, some initial thoughts are that cause-related investments, with strong emotional appeal, will be a far easier sell than something less-emotional even though it may still be a sound financial investment. Local and community-oriented projects will likely have local appeal.

On the negative side of the equation, it will be possible for someone to fund a poorly conceived startup without anyone seriously vetting the business model. This is a task normally reserved for incubators, angels, or VCs. So some of the previous checks and balances may be missing, although it may only be in a small minority of the cases.

Funding startups has always been risky and even the smartest of the smart money people aren’t all that good at picking the winners.

The best part about crowdfunding is that it will allow startups to take more control over their own destiny, and the number of jobs created along the way will be huge.

Global vision produces large-scale opportunities.

14 Global Projects

When it comes to launching web-related startups, only rarely do we see people start with a global vision first. Usually that works against them because they quickly lose their ability to focus on a starting point.

But inside these global visions are some of the true large-scale opportunities for the future that take advantage of growing levels of human connectedness.

My hope in listing these projects is to stimulate thinking about other possible projects. I’m sure this is only scratching the surface.

1.) The Billion-Cam Video Project – What would it take to get people to connect 1 billion video cameras to the Internet? Does the current infrastructure have enough capability to handle that volume of data? Even low-res, compressed signals will likely strain telecom capacity.

But if it were possible, would there be a market for it?

Consider the following scenario. If a company offered cheap wireless cameras that could be placed around a home, commercial property, on cars, or other public areas, and the cost of connecting the cameras was a low $1-$2 a month, how quickly would that catch on?

Assuming that most people would feel safer with “watchful eyes” outside their homes, how would this type of pervasive video monitoring affect society? Would the crime rate drop? Would this level of transparency create an unusual level of paranoia? How could this data be monetized in new and unusual ways?

Those with the right answers may hit the next big wave online.

Terabyters collect vast amounts of information daily.

2.) The Coming of the Terabyters – A terabyter is a term I’ve coined to describe a person who produces more than a terabyte of new information every day. Today, only a handful of these people exist, but the numbers will soon swell along with the development of new data capture equipment.

Similar to the pervasiveness of the Billion-Can Video Project, a Terabyter would begin each day by strapping on video and data capture equipment to record a constant stream of information around them, and upload it online. Once 100,000 or even 1 million people are doing this, this real-time spidering of the world by individuals will create unique business openings.

So where is the business model in capturing massive volumes of data like this? Who are the winners and losers? The people who can answer these questions will be the ones who turn this idea into one of the next online gold mines.

3.) Whole Earth Genealogy Project – The genealogical industry currently exists as a million fragmented efforts happening simultaneously. While the dominant players, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, have multiple websites with hundreds of millions of genealogies, there is still a much bigger opportunity waiting to happen.

So far there is no comprehensive effort to build a database of humanity’s heritage capable of scaling to the point of including everyone on earth, posted on an all-inclusive whole-earth family tree.

As we improve our ability to capture DNA and decipher it, it may even be possible to automate this process.

The information will prove to be tremendously valuable, providing data about hereditary diseases, demographic patterns, census bureau analytics, and much more.

More importantly, this will become a new organizing system for humanity – a new taxonomy. Every person on earth will have a placeholder showing exactly where they fit. In many respects, it will be similar to the way maps helped us frame our thinking about world geography. This would be a new form of “geography” for humanity.

4.) Whole Earth Plant Genealogy Project – Same as #3 but using plant DNA to automatically map plant genealogy. Unlike working with humans, there would be no privacy concerns about mapping plants (unless you are Monsanto).

Over time this could evolve into vital data to feed into our global food supply.

5.) Whole Earth Animal Genealogy Project – Once again, the same as #3 and #4, but using animal DNA to automatically map animal genealogy.

With many of our newer diseases attributed to coming from animals, understanding animal genealogy may well provide us with the critical information to find a cure.

6.) Whole Earth Ownership Project – Records of property ownership are typically buried in some courthouse or government filing system, available only to people who take the time and energy to do the research.

Currently there is no global repository for this type of information.

Zillow.com has created a way to instantly find the value of properties in the U.S., but it doesn’t get into ownership records. Expanding on their model to include properties worldwide, with additional information, could be a very successful enterprise.

7.) The Ownership Matrix – Every person owns tons of stuff. When we buy something new, we take ownership of it. But when exactly does the ownership actually begin and end. And who’s keeping track?

Our houses are filled with books, tools, ornaments, utensils, furniture, fixtures, gifts, clothing, shoes, and accessories. When we loan something out, its hard to keep track.

Few people have any sort of inventory of what they own, and most start to lose track after a few hundred items and the passage of time obscuring even the best of memories.

Somewhere in this quandary lies a golden opportunity. Is it possible to create an ownership graph with the value of items, locations, and an aging matrix? Is this something that can be automated?

A worldwide central ‘law repository’ would usher in global transparency.

8.) Whole Earth Law Project – Very few countries have their laws posted in a central repository. In the U.S. the laws, rules, and regulations are so numerous and obscure that few people know what laws are governing them at any given moment.

If a central “law repository” were created, and all laws should be public knowledge anyway, then our global legal systems could move into a new era of transparency.

Business people would be able to make conscious decisions about whether they want to do business in a certain country based on the number of laws they may have to contend with.

9.) Whole Earth Court System – If a court system were developed using crowdsourcing to form its jury decisions, what things would have to change?

Much like every other system we’ve been raised with, the courts and justice systems are highly inefficient legacy systems that we have inherited from generations past. And like every other legacy system, it’s only one disruptive personality away from being totally revamped.

Companies can agree to settle their disputes in ways other than traditional national or regional court systems. If enough companies agree, traditional court systems may find themselves on the outside looking in.

10.) Global Elections – When will we see the first global election with over 500 million people voting from over 50 different countries? Will they be voting for a person, or voting on an issue? If it’s a person, what position will that person be running for? And, if it’s an issue, what issue will be so compelling that everyone wants to vote on it?

The idea of global elections is not new. In fact, people have dabbled with the concept for centuries. However, the Internet has opened up an entirely new toolbox of possibilities.

The trickiest part to hosting global elections will be the voting process and making sure the technology is hacker-proof.

In addition to technological problems are issues of authority, accountability, and enforceability. As an example, if world-wide referendums were used to decide on an official global currency or official global language, who will enforce the results? What penalty will there be for non-compliance?

However, for someone who can figure it out, there could be a massive up-side to this business model.

11.) Global Checks-and-Balance Project – Too many of the vital systems used to govern our world are left unchecked. Abuse of power is rampant in countries throughout the globe.

In a project that would propose to map systems against their associated checks and balance counterweight, we will begin to find a very revealing way of restructuring some of the world’s more egregious problem areas.

12.) Replacement for Wikipedia – At the DaVinci Institute, we began a series of Wikipedia research projects to uncover “what’s missing,” and the results are very telling. Two of the tests showed well over 50% of important content entries either missing or incomplete, and by another measure, over 95% missing.

Missing content is in direct correlation to the relevancy Wikipedia will hold in the minds of people in the future. It is also a clear signal to startup entrepreneurs that a new opportunity awaits.

What mysteries does the simple wheat kernel hold on an atomic level?

13.) Every-Atom Mapping of a Kernel of Wheat – We are still a long ways away from being able to do this, but over time we will begin to understand the entire data set inside a single kernel of wheat. What role does every molecule play and what role do external forces play on it’s development?

This will be a project exponentially more complicated than the human genome project, and it may be too complicated to start with wheat, but eventually we will get there. Once we can successfully map wheat, we can work on far more complicated organisms including animals and humans.

14.) Job-Mapping, Skill-Mapping Project – Our jobs throughout the world are constantly changing. At the same time, the skills people use to perform their tasks are also evolving. What’s missing is a less-interpretive way of connecting skills with the jobs that require them.

There will be huge demand for someone who can crack the code on this one.

Closing Thoughts

Once again, this exercise was intended to help stretch the thinking of those in search of the next big thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts about other projects that should also be included on this list.

Certainly I can’t promise all will lead to a billion dollar payday. Perhaps none of them will.

But I can promise that when it comes to big opportunities in the years ahead, we are only scratching the surface. The greatest industries today will pale in comparison to what comes next.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything