It’s a cliché to say that the world is more uncertain than ever before, but few realize just how much uncertainty has increased over the past 50 years. To illustrate this, consider that patent applications in the U.S. have increased by 6x (from 100k to 600k annually) and, worldwide, start-ups have increased from 10 million to almost 100 million per year. That means new technologies and new competitors are hitting the market at an unprecedented rate. Although uncertainty is accelerating, it isn’t affecting all industries the same way. That’s because there are two primary types of uncertainty — demand uncertainty (will customers buy your product?) and technological uncertainty (can we make a desirable solution?) — and how much uncertainty your industry faces depends on the interaction of the two.
Demand uncertainty arises from the unknowns associated with solving any problem, such as hidden customer preferences. The more unknowns there are about customer preferences, the greater the demand uncertainty. For example, when Rent the Runway founder Jenn Hyman came up with the idea to rent designer dresses over the internet, demand uncertainty was high because no one else was offering this type of service. In contrast, when Samsung and Sony were deciding whether to launch LED TVs, which offered better picture quality than plasma TVs at a slightly higher price, there was lower uncertainty about demand because customers were already buying TVs.
Technological uncertainty results from unknowns regarding the technologies that might emerge or be combined to create a new solution. For example, a wide variety of clean technologies (including wind, solar, and hydrogen) are vying to power vehicles and cities at the same time that a wide variety of medical technologies (chemical, biotechnological, genomic, and robotic) are being developed to treat diseases. As the overall rate of invention across industries increases, so does technological uncertainty.
Consider the 2×2 matrix below. The horizontal axis plots each industry based on technological uncertainty, measured as the average R&D expenditures as a percentage of sales in the industry over the past ten years. The vertical axis plots each industry’s demand uncertainty, measured as an equal weighting of industry revenue volatility, or change, over the past 10 years and percentage of firms in the industry that entered or exited during that same time period. Although these are imperfect measures, they identify the industries facing the highest, and lowest baseline levels of uncertainty.