The biggest tech trends of 2021 – Fast Company
As we come to the end of a crazy 2020, many of us are suffering from COVID-19 exhaustion. But as two vaccines begin their rollouts, we’ve also begun to visualize what post-pandemic life might be like.
Most would agree that the new normal that begins to take shape in 2021 won’t be the old one. By forcing us from our routines, the pandemic has prompted us to reexamine the ways we live and work, and how we mix life and work together.
The changes that grow from that reflection will be reflected in the technologies we use going forward. I asked startup CEOs, executives at big companies, investors, and other experts for their predictions for the year ahead, from collaboration services to medical innovations to fresh ideas in AI, commerce, and even the tools we use to sustain our democracy.
Of course, even the smartest forecasts can be disrupted by reality. A year ago, I asked tech experts to tell us what 2020 would be like; the clear and logical picture they painted would soon get bent sideways, refracted through the weird prism of COVID-19. With any luck, 2021–however it pans out—won’t be so full of rude surprises.
The following quotes were edited for length and organized by subject matter.
Beyond the pandemic
Jeff Richards, managing partner, GGV Capital:
I think the innovation people will most embrace next year–particularly the back half of the year when it is hopefully safe to be out in public again without fear–will be technologies that bring people together. We are social creatures. Our families, work environments, and community organizations are built around human interaction. That human interaction was taken from us in 2020, and I think people are craving to have it back. We don’t quite know what the innovations are that will bring us together, but I’m confident entrepreneurs will find ways to make it happen.
Nick Weaver, CEO and cofounder, Eero:
Before the pandemic, we saw a clear difference in how people were using home Wi-Fi on weekdays versus weekends. Now many people are working, learning, and keeping everyone entertained from home seven days a week. We’ve formed habits and have gotten a lot more comfortable with doing things virtually. This opens up an entirely new way of life for a lot of people. The latest research has shown that 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is now working from home, but even after the pandemic, the anticipated share of working-from-home days is set to triple compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Colin Angle, founder & CEO, iRobot:
We expect many will continue to work from home or shift to a hybrid working arrangement, accelerating the need for in-home technology to be smarter, adapt better to people’s changing needs, and ultimately become a better partner to people. That includes a sharper understanding of people’s spaces and preferences, compatibility between devices, and even suggesting automations that teach a home to do what you want, when you want. With that, more than ever, consumers are demanding more than just a functional product from technology brands. They expect a deeper relationship that goes beyond one transaction.
Joseph Huang, CEO, StartX:
The launch of the iPhone was seen as a temporary fad by many, but history has shown that it in fact accelerated the adoption of mobile-first as the way businesses interact with the world. Even in a timeline where the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to be temporary, the changes it has brought will only accelerate as well.
Work—remote and otherwise
Sheela Subramanian, senior director, Future Forum:
Leaving the physical HQ behind will be a liberating moment, as it will shift norms from being office-centric to people-centric. “Face-time only” standards that make employees of satellite offices feel like second-class citizens will no longer define the daily experience. It means more flexibility for working parents, because there is no longer the expectation of a 9-to-5 day bookended by a long commute. And it results in open, democratic organizations where information is more widely accessible because it isn’t confined to the conversations held in a boardroom.
Keenan Beasley, founder, Venture Noire:
[A]s the workforce continues to relocate across the country and out of large cities, organizations will need to invest heavily in tech that enables the future of remote work. As far as goods, major advances will be needed in the last mile logistics industry for the same reason. I believe that the technologies that will impact our lives the most in the next year and beyond will be those that enable people to shift into a new work-life balance where they have more flexibility to choose when and where they do either.
Rony Abovitz, founder, Magic Leap:
We will acclimate norms and establish standards and better technologies to make remote work and digital co-presence a permanent part of the global work environment. The patchwork quilt of video conferencing services and web-based team tools that we have all been using intensely for months will rapidly evolve into more sophisticated and powerful interfaces and networks that will allow us to collaborate and deliver services at high speed, at much less cost, and with wider scale.
Greg Brockman, cofounder and chairman, OpenAI:
As the pandemic winds down, we’ll have the first opportunity in recent memory to rethink office space. Gone will be the days of cramming everyone into open plan offices, as will be the notion of sitting in traffic five days a week to put in face time at a common physical location. People will come into the office less and potentially on a staggered schedule. Companies will need to optimize their in-office setups to make sure that days in the office have collaboration benefits worth the cost of a commute.
Megan Bent, founder and managing partner, Harbinger Ventures:
Videoconferencing may be the tool professionals have been looking for to achieve that highly sought-after but elusive goal of work life balance. I think about a CFO who has eliminated eight hours per week of commute; he has reinvested that time directly back into his Peloton and having dinner with his three kids every night. I think about a panel I joined recently–from home–allowing me to engage with my professional community without losing three days to travel and missing my daughter’s soccer game.
Jared Spataro, corporate VP, Microsoft 365:
Hardware, software and physical meeting rooms designed to bridge physical and digital worlds, and experiences that make it possible for all people and all voices to be heard–regardless of physical presence–will be the crux to fostering innovation and creativity in the weeks and months ahead. This will include the use of mixed reality to connect frontline workers to experts not available in-person, but also meeting software and hardware with high-fidelity video feeds and digital collaborative whiteboards that allow everyone to contribute.
Brad Svrluga, cofounder and general partner, Primary Venture Partners:
We have all gotten comfortable and efficient when we’re all remote and connecting only digitally. But I believe strongly that the future utopia that so many people are talking about–where they’re in the office maybe only two to three days each week and otherwise Zooming in from their bedrooms–simply isn’t realistic. Company cultures work well when everyone’s together or everyone’s remote. The mixed/hybrid models that many people seem to be aspiring to will present a whole new set of communication and cultural challenges.
Jake Saper, general partner, Emergence Capital:
Collaboration software is increasingly at odds with productivity. As the number of apps in both categories has exploded, there’s been a huge uptick in data loss (and frustration) as workers pivot across apps to get their work done. “Deep collaboration” refers to software which combines productivity and collaboration functionality in one place to get a specific job done. All the productivity and collaboration (both internal and external) features [needed] to accomplish the job live in the same place. Most high value jobs to be done involve people from a variety of departments. This new stack allows them to work together in deeper ways.
Sarah Foley, partner, SWAT Equity Partners:
Video streaming, which has seen tremendous growth in adoption this year, will undoubtedly continue to be a major part of the way we live and do business after the pandemic recedes. Musicians, fitness instructors, small and big businesses, and even religious institutions have turned to video streaming and discovered its benefits and potential. Offering increased affordability and accessibility of content and services to consumers, streaming is likely to impact some of our social behavior patterns. For example, a subscription bundle costs less than a movie ticket, and virtual workout classes are accessible anytime, anywhere.
Erica Brescia, COO, GitHub:
The data sharing and open collaboration practices that have been crucial to the fight against COVID will lead to greater public-private and cross-industry collaboration moving forward. We’ll see the pace of innovation increase across the entire world, especially in developing countries where the incredible amount of tech talent is finally being recognized and tapped into thanks to distributed work and hiring practices.
Caroline Chan, VP and general manager of the 5G infrastructure division and network platform group, Intel:
The pandemic really showcased the potential value of 5G use cases the industry has been anticipating for years. In the new year, enterprises will work diligently to implement 5G technologies to make these use cases a reality. We have heard from CIOs at a variety of large enterprises that they are willing to spend 5-10% of their budget on the technology. This investment will start to shift the broader perspective that 5G is only for your smartphone, and instead, people will begin to realize the greatest impact will be in the enterprise.
Mark Surman, executive director, Mozilla Foundation:
We increasingly rely on technologies that collect our data and use it to make decisions about us: newsfeeds, online stores, dating apps, smart speakers. This reliance only increased during the pandemic, as we did more and more things online–like grocery shopping and doctor visits–that we used to do offline. As the pandemic recedes, people can devote more attention to the power imbalances of this model. Why should Amazon get to know so much about our shopping habits? Why should Facebook get to create eerily accurate psychographic profiles of us? As a way to rebalance power, we’ll likely see new data governance models become more popular in 2021 and beyond–like data trusts, which operate as trusted intermediaries between consumers and big tech platforms.
Eve Maler, CTO, ForgeRock:
With the 13th Data Privacy Day coming up in 2021, my question—as every year—is, what’s gotten better? Unfortunately, not much. In 2020, the digital surge has revealed that many consent processes are (still) fundamentally broken and lead to both a degradation of privacy and a poorer experience. A clue to the most significant upcoming development in privacy in 2021 can be found in the U.S.’s healthcare “CMS rule“, going into effect next year. It mandates health data interoperability and patient access for sharing, which is a more empowering view of personal data than the current credo of seeing people as passive “data subjects.”
Sridhar Ramaswamy, partner, Greylock Partners, and CEO, Neeva:
This coming year will see the mass adoption of customer-first, privacy software bundles. As more and more people realize that free products come with significant liabilities, expect consumers to buy bundles like search, email, and VPN.
Jem Davies, VP & general manager of machine learning group, Arm:
From smartphone pictures to smart speakers, consumers enjoy AI and ML technology every day, generally without ever knowing it. Invisibility is a key attribute of this technology that we will continue to prioritize well into 2021 and beyond, spurring the adoption of many applications. For example, one-click smart parking will likely be the first experience with autonomous cars for many, and security systems that can accurately differentiate between the sound of a nearby prowler and a wandering raccoon will attract consumers. We will also have to give consumers a much-needed sense of privacy and data autonomy.
Marco Casalaina, senior VP of product management, Salesforce:
By the time we hit 2022, AI will finally have entered the mainstream. The pandemic introduced countless new digital touchpoints for B2C and B2B companies alike, which means there’s more data than ever before. Businesses and consumers will have more of an understanding of what AI can do. IDC predicts that global spending on AI will double in the next four years, reaching $110 billion in 2024, as companies see an opportunity to boost innovation, improve customer service and automate routine tasks so their employees can focus on more strategic work.
Simon Allen, CEO, McGraw Hill:
I estimate that [the] recent increase in online learning would probably have taken at least five more years to reach without the pandemic, but now that it’s happened, we don’t expect education to ever fully return to how it was before. AI-driven “adaptive learning” tools have also shined during this crisis. These digitally personalized tools have long been great at helping teachers to precisely target the exact, granular topic a student needs help on. But in the COVID era, when individual teacher-student interaction has never been more scarce or more precious, we really saw these tools put to the test like never before, and we saw the real value that they can add.
Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, and co-founder of Schmidt Futures
The enormous success of the vaccines for Covid will be followed by an explosion of new drugs and new treatments for Covid. As we reemerge from the limitations of the pandemic, we will want to spread these gains to all, and not just the wealthy, worldwide. These treatments will follow the same curve as technology; and rapid cost improvements and distribution means that everyone will have a shot (literally) to stay safe.
Bryan Roberts, partner, Venrock:
(In 2021, we’ll see) very high-performance, very fast, very low-cost COVID diagnostic tests available over the counter, because people will want to test all the time (as we emerge from social distancing and still don’t know what vaccine durability will really be).
Andrew Diamond, chief medical officer, One Medical:
The pandemic has catalyzed widespread adoption and availability of virtual healthcare in a completely transformative way. At a time when increased social isolation is driving a “shadow pandemic” of anxiety and depression, virtual care has enabled providers to address these and other chronic health concerns by connecting deeply and safely with patients in their home environment. Coupled with remote testing and monitoring technology, virtual care is clearly here to stay. At the same time, we’re learning how crucially important real, in-person encounters are in all facets of our lives. The most interesting businesses will be those that seamlessly integrate virtual and in-person experiences.
Dr. Claire Novorol, cofounder and chief medical officer, Ada Health:
With video care platforms becoming increasingly commoditized, the most exciting innovations in healthtech will center on enabling effective navigation between a more diverse set of available care options. Intelligent orchestration platforms will not only automatically route patients to the right physical, virtual or digital care for their personal and clinical needs, but they will deliver the holy grail for healthcare providers: better patient outcomes, delivered faster and at reduced cost.
Bob Kocher, partner, Venrock:
I think a positive benefit of our enormous COVID-catalyzed shift toward virtual healthcare services will be the ability to use text messaging for all sorts of healthcare transactions, services, and communications. You will be able to text a provider to get a prescription, order a COVID test, make an appointment, ask a question to any of your doctors, get mental health care support, and to talk to the people taking care of your aging parents or the team helping with a sick child. Healthcare providers will also use texting to check in on patients more often and to track clinical data points, which will help them respond more quickly when help is needed.
Sean Harper, cofounder and managing director, Westlake Village BioPartners:
As we roll out the COVID-19 vaccine, it is going to be important to know who has been vaccinated, so we can better contain the spread of the virus and allow people to get back to their normal lives. I think a smartphone app that provides globally accepted certification of SARS Cov-2 vaccination status would be a useful tool to help achieve this in 2021.
Alyssa Cutright, head of global payments, eBay:
COVID has accelerated the need for new payment methods like mobile wallets, contactless payments, buy now pay later, and installment methods. Not only are we seeing higher adoption of global payment methods like Apple Pay and Google Pay, and local payment methods like Afterpay in Australia, but we’re also seeing a shift across the industry in how retailers deliver their payment options to customers, like using QR codes to make a payment.
Ian Lee, managing director, IDEO CoLab Ventures:
The adoption of new technologies—Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and Ethereum-based decentralized finance services—will be essential to designing a more fair, accessible, and free financial system. These decentralized financial applications, services, and businesses will grow exponentially in terms of investment, value, usage, and adoption. They will start to outcompete traditional financial services companies in the areas of payments, trading, savings, and wealth management. And we’ll see these traditional financial services organizations like Square, PayPal, and others beginning to build businesses and products using decentralized financial infrastructure.
Varun Krishna, senior VP and head of consumer finance, Mint:
Unfortunately, many aspects of our financial system are predatory toward consumers. There’s a reason your bank doesn’t go out of their way to stop you from overdrafting, when they know it’s going to happen. The pandemic exacerbated the pain of these predatory practices. We as financial technology companies have a moral obligation to help people spend less, save more, and make more, in order to rebuild. This is now truly achievable with technologies like automation and machine learning.
Nadya Ivanova, COO and foresight lead, L’Atelier:
After an explosion of new projects and use cases in the last few years, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are primed for mainstream growth in 2021. As unique digital assets that are impossible to replicate, NFTs can bridge the virtual and the physical economies, offering an infinite market of goods that can be scaled, collected, and traded: from virtual land in multi-user platforms, through programmable art, to ownership records for physical assets.
Thomas Sineau, managing analyst, CB Insights:
Conversational commerce will explode in 2021, as businesses look for new ways to engage loyal customers and convert new ones. Success in this space will be defined by how quickly and easily a customer can make a transaction, as well as how well brands can build their own messaging voice. One thing we will watch very closely is how far the Facebook family (WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger) pushes in this direction with new features, including from Facebook’s recent Kustomer acquisition.
John Sculley, former CEO, Apple:
Online shopping will continue to grow rapidly even post the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ll see competition between third party ecommerce platforms, like Amazon and Shopify, will heat up into “shopping wars” in 2021 and 2022. Platforms like TikTok, Shopify, and YouTube have aligned as a third-party ecommerce fulfillment platforms system to compete vs. Amazon. In fact, Facebook and TikTok are both expanding into social-media ecommerce.
Clean and green
Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon:
Climate change is one of the most difficult issues of our time, requiring a collective effort across academia, technology, government, industry, nonprofits, and society to understand and untangle the complex web of cause and effect unfolding across the planet. As climate data sets get larger and larger, machine learning will start to play a more important role in looking for patterns within that data. Over the next year, researchers will be able to accelerate our understanding of climate science by using machine learning to sift through vast amounts of data and more accurately model the future.
Matt Trotter, head off frontier technology and energy and resource innovation, Silicon Valley Bank:
Climate change will be an increased focus in the US in 2021 and we will see strong momentum in the electric transportation industry, which will affect not just the manufacturers, but a lot of different pieces of the industry, such as batteries. Electric aviation, for example, will be an area of increased investment from venture investors and corporate R&D groups. Public transportation was particularly hit hard in 2020 and it will be difficult to get comfortable with the idea of cramming into buses and subways going into 2021. People will likely leverage low-cost outdoor transportation options, such as scooters and bikes, as we enter into the Spring and warmer months.
Andrea Hailey, CEO, Vote.org:
In 2016, more than 100 million eligible voters didn’t participate in the general election. 35% of non-voters said that scheduling conflicts with work or school kept them from getting to the polls. Mail-in ballots make it possible for many more voters to participate in our elections, yet some state legislators are already attempting to roll back this progress. Vote.org believes mail-in voting, along with other measures to simplify civic engagement, and the future of voting will be no-excuse, universal mail-in ballots, continuing to increase accessibility for all voters in the elections to come.
Rony Abovitz, founder, Magic Leap:
We need intelligent solutions to defragment news media, and to establish a unified sense of what is true and real and verifiable. A country can not operate successfully in an atmosphere where verifiable facts and scientifically provable true things are equally weighted against ungrounded conspiracy theories and emotional, biased opinions.