As Nobel Laureate Nils Bohr once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Nevertheless, many futurists predicted that by 2018 we’d be living in a world populated with flying cars, robot butlers and hoverboards. Instead, we’ve got drones that carry cameras, not human beings, robot vacuum cleaners that get stuck under the sofa and deadly devices called “hoverboards” that don’t even hover. Clearly, unfogging the future is not an easy task.
Companies that can most effectively leverage the new technologies at the heart of the technological turning point we are experiencing today in productivity will determine the winners and losers. But societal trends also drive investment opportunities. Here are some market sectors worth watching:
- Vertical Farming
A promising trend in sustainable food is indoor vertical farming, which will make immediate sense to anyone living in Hong Kong. Vertical farms are high-tech grow houses that typically inhabit buildings in urban areas, including skyscrapers. Produce is grown in stacks for local consumption. The farms use artificial lighting, climate control and in many cases hydroponics. Such techniques use 98 per cent less water and 70 per cent less fertiliser, says Deutsche Bank Wealth Management’s Mueller. By growing the food closer to the people who will consume it, pollution from transport is also greatly reduced.
Countries throughout Asia, from India to Japan, are working to develop this technology, and there are some companies, such as Spread in Japan, that are already producing commercial crops. However, the technology is still in need of some development. So far it’s mostly being used to grow leafy greens and some vegetables, but to make Asian cities self-sufficient in food they’re going to have to figure out how to grow rice.
The ubiquity of internet-connected devices has changed the way we all work and live, but each one of those connections represents a potential doorway to private communications, customer data and whatever else might interest hackers. Even Equifax, a credit-scoring company that also sells online identity protection, failed to notice when hackers accessed its servers and stole the personal data of up to 145 million US citizens.
Most businesses haven’t even begun to understand their vulnerability, but it is easy to imagine a future in which all companies—and even individuals—take cybersecurity as seriously as we take physical security today. That would imply a huge growth opportunity for companies that specialise in this area. FireEye, which is already listed on Nasdaq in New York, is the most prominent name. Trend Micro, which is listed in Tokyo, is the top Asian company.
3. Plant-based food
The logic here is simple. There isn’t enough room on the planet for all seven billion of us to eat a diet rich in meat and other animal products. A growing awareness of healthy eating is driving more people to reduce the amount of meat they eat, even in China, where sales of pork have been declining for the past three years.
Many big food companies are well aware of this trend and are starting to invest in the plant-based sector. Nestle, which bought California’s Sweet Earth Foods in September, estimates the market is growing by double digits and will reach US$5 billion worldwide by 2020. Other plant-based brands owned by major food groups include Danone’s Daiya, KraftHeinz’s Boca and Pinnacle Foods’ Gardein.
China Resources owns a stake in Swedish plant milk producer Oatly, while investors in one of the biggest players in this sector, Beyond Meat, include Bill Gates and Tyson Foods, the world’s second-biggest processor and marketer of meat. If you want a taste of the future right here in Hong Kong, head down to Butcher’s Club and order the protein-packed vegan Beyond Burger. For dessert, sample some locally produced dairy-free ice cream at Happy Cow.
Of course, many of the plant-based proteins that healthy eaters in the West are only just discovering have been staples in Asia for centuries— tofu, seitan, tempeh—but it remains to be seen if traditional Asian producers will capitalise on the increasing global appetite for these foods.
4. Distributed ledgers
While there is plenty of talk about blockchain in the media, most of it surrounds financial products. This is not surprising, as its most famous application is the foundation for bitcoin’s secure authentication of transactions—and the same technology has obvious application for almost any financial contract. But there is another side to blockchain.
“The bulk of the unrealised potential of blockchain lies in non-finance applications,” says Justin Chan of Overseas Chinese Investment Management. “In a world without blockchain, the data collected by internet-of-things devices is in the hands of large corporations—think of Fitbit.”
But putting this information on a distributed ledger such as blockchain means that customers could own their own data independently from the device that captures it, which would also make it more secure than storing it on a central server. Blockchain is not the only technology here. Mueller notes that Tangle is the other half of the distributed ledger universe. While blockchain is just what it sounds like—a chain of blocks—Tangle is a blockless ledger.