Three years after the recession was declared officially over, unemployment remains high and there’s worry that a new recession is down the road. And yet waiting in the wings for when we get our economic policies in order are a mounting number of stunning discoveries, inventions and technological breakthroughs that could set off a burst of growth and wealth creation as big as any in living memory.

The fracking technology that is making available vast new sources of recoverable oil and natural gas in North America is one such breakthrough. But all across the commercial and industrial landscape, there are exciting developments:

• Nanoculture: One of the truths of tech is that revolutions take longer than predicted, but they arrive sooner than we are prepared for them. That is the case with nanotechnology, the hot new science story of a decade ago.

Though it has largely disappeared from the front pages, nanotech is only now coming into its own. Breakthrough medicines; genetic research; new materials such as graphene (a lattice-sheet form of carbon used for everything from filters to computer chips); molecular electronics (extreme miniaturization, thus super-small sensors and other devices); and quantum computing (small, superfast supercomputers) have all been announced in recent months. Indeed, the range of emerging applications for nano materials is so wide-ranging and important that, together, they suggest an impending turning point in high tech as important as silicon and integrated circuitry were half a century ago.

Enlarge Image

Corbis
• Cloud Crowd: In the world of information technology, the big story these days is the shift of data management from largely in-house computing centers to rented, easily scalable computing and storage from anonymous servers located somewhere out in the Internet. Much of this shift, driven by leading providers such as Amazon, is already well under way, rapidly driving down costs and making information management much more affordable both for industry and, increasingly, consumers.

This in turn has kicked off a true revolution in what is being called “big data.” Big data is the application of all of this new computing power to reach beyond the individual application of mass information to the mass application of individual data—for instance, by tracking a billion sensors in real time to monitor weather across a continent. It could mean capturing every step in the path of every shopper in a store over the course of a year, or monitoring every vital sign of a patient every second for the course of his illness.

Big data offers measuring precision in science, business, medicine and almost every other sector never before possible. It could ultimately have an impact as great as mass production did more than a century ago—creating a new world of mass personalization of products and services. The big-data revolution is already happening, with hundreds of applications already in use, for instance, tracking millions of chickens from farms in Thailand to family tables around the world, or monitoring the location in real time of every emergency vehicle in a major city like Chicago. Over the next few years, it will spread across every industry and scientific discipline.

• Printing Dreams: Three-dimensional printing is a manufacturing technology that creates specific objects from buildings to machine components, and even human organs, either by laying down layers of material or carving away from a block of existing material. It’s been around for several years but will soon influence everyday life.

Using new materials such as molten polymers and metal powders, highly focused lasers and, increasingly, nanotech, 3-D printing is an incredibly powerful design and modeling tool. Because it offers the potential for the same economies at any volume, this technology, especially when it gets bolted to big data and nanotech, rewrites the very notion of economies of scale. It could transform manufacturing, eliminating the current cost advantage enjoyed by developing countries and bringing jobs back to the U.S.

You can already find hundreds of consumer products, from furniture to jewelry, created with 3-D printing. Less obvious are the thousands of gears, motors and other industrial components that are now custom-fabricated this way. Says computer scientist Christopher Barnatt, “[Imagine] a future in which the everyday ‘atomization’ of virtual objects into hard reality has turned the mass preproduction and stockholding of a wide range of goods and spare parts into no more than an historical legacy.” Then, imagine that future with the 3-D printer in your home.

• Handheld Diplomas: The discrepancy between the cost of university tuition and the return on that investment for most students grows every year. As students, increasingly priced out of traditional education, begin to abandon the college path, colleges and universities will have no choice but to pursue them—with ever-greater numbers of virtual courses (and eventually degrees)—on laptops, smartphones and tablets. This shift is already beginning to transform higher education and bring in a host of new competitors. Its potential to raise educational achievements in K-12—where rising costs and diminishing results are even more out of control—could be even more revolutionary. And apart from formal schooling, why can’t the Internet be harnessed to embed education into the daily life of people at any age, and wherever in the world they live?

• Self-Health: While Washington, the national media and the general public focus on draconian responses to the rising costs of health care, for-profit businesses are busy inventing small, affordable solutions. For example, there are now more than 12,000 new health-care apps available from independent developers for the iPhone and iPad. Examples includes the iTriage, which lets users check their own symptoms and find a nearby health provider, and iBGStar, a blood tester for diabetics that connects to the iPhone and lets users sync and manage information from test readings.

Meanwhile, the first of scores of new home diagnostic and monitoring devices—small, affordable, and increasingly connected to health professionals via the Web—are now appearing on the scene. They promise greater drug regimen adherence (the current failure of which is a huge social cost); early identification of everything from a drug reaction to a heart attack; better maintenance of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hepatitis; and virtual doctor visits that make use of home monitoring devices and communications tools such as Skype.

It’s all on the way. Together, these trends offer the potential for a golden era. Getting there won’t be easy, as we are currently governed by leaders who want to manage our complex and dynamic economy from the top down, to tame entrepreneurs with regulation, to tax the productive and, ultimately, to pick the next generation of winners. That’s never worked well and isn’t working today. But a better world awaits us if we elect leaders who can imagine a better future and fight to unleash the animal spirits of the market that will get us there.

Mr. Malone is a tech journalist and the author of several books, most recenty “Charlie’s Place” (History Publishing, 2012).

A version of this article appeared July 6, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Sources of the Next American Boom.