The need to build things seems hardwired into the human psyche. We created tools out of stone, machines out of metal, and buildings that reach into the sky. Our works of engineering have become more sophisticated over time, particularly in IT, with clunky, unconnected mainframes evolving into a global network that, according to Cisco, will comprise 25 billion devices by 2015.

Today, we have begun to build our IT infrastructure into the cloud and are turning to a less tangible type of material: big data. This makes me wonder whether we are in the early stages of a virtual construction boom. We could be. Media pundits, scientists and futurists are saying that what oil was to the 20th century, big data will be for the 21st. But like oil, this lucrative resource needs to be refined first. We need to move from mining vast quantities of data to making that data meaningful and actionable for people.

Companies such as my own, Philips, have been developing ways to visualize and explore large data sets and turn them into practical offerings. As a result, the line between device and service is being blurred, and consumers now not only expect their device to be interactive but they also want it to be generating personal value. Quantified Self, for example, has built a global community of pioneering people who use self-tracking tools to get meaning out of their personal data.

The more that data becomes meaningful, the quicker it goes mainstream and has the power to transform people’s lives, from automating mundane tasks to enabling healthier life choices. This year’s crop of World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers reflects this potential. The Nest thermostat learns from a user’s behaviour and creates a tailored heating and cooling schedule that saves energy. Coursera is unleashing a small revolution in education by allowing anyone to learn from some of the world’s best universities for free.

Big data also has the power to revolutionize how we do business. It helps companies create stronger connections with their customers and find leaner ways of operating. Kaggle, for example, adds rigorous data analysis to decision-making by connecting data scientists to companies with big data problems. And GitHub, a leading social network for programmers, is changing how people collaborate on projects.

In addition, big data is itself a fast-growing business, something that is apparent in China. Rapid urbanization, a huge population and the exponential adoption of mobile devices are turning China into one of the most important data markets in the world. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which is larger than Amazon and eBay together, announced that data mining will be one of the company’s three business pillars. It has created an 800-person division that will use the data generated through Alibaba’s e-commerce site and its consumer-to-consumer platform, Taobao.com.

A lot of work remains to be done before big data fulfils its promise. We have to make sense of a world in which personal data is indispensable but at the same time can’t be separated from important questions on privacy, ownership and accountability. But just as mankind loves to build things, mankind also excels at overcoming obstacles. If businesses, academia and governments work together, big data will build a better world; one in which illnesses are tracked upfront, air pollution controlled, energy consumption lowered and a healthy meal cooked before you come home.

See also: I don’t care how big your data is, by Jeremy Howard

Jim Andrew is Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Philips. He is participating in the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China.

Image: Children try out laptops at a showroom in Seoul (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)