Top Business and Technology Trends in 2021

Let’s imagine customer experience in a post-Covid world. We should anticipate that the changes in consumer preferences and business models will outlast the immediate crisis. Once consumers acclimate to new digital or remote models, I expect some of them to change people’s expectations permanently — accelerating shifts already under way before the crisis.

Digital nomadism, philanthropy, and sustainable development goals (SDG) will be popular keywords in 2021, and we will also see rapid changes in top technological and business innovation — all based on people’s experience during the pandemic. Here are a few technology and business trends we will see in 2021.

Trend 1: Drug development revolution with advanced Covid-19 testing and vaccine development

Covid caused a major shakeup in the drug industry, making it quicker and easier to trial drugs. Researchers have put many traditional clinical trials on hold, or they have shifted to a virtual structure by performing consultations online and collecting data remotely. Remote clinical trials and other changes may permanently alter pharmaceutical development.

We’ve seen speedy Covid-19 test kit developments all over the world, as well as remarkably fast development of vaccines by U.S. and U.K.-based pharmaceutical companies: PfizerModerna, and AstraZeneca.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have developed mRNA vaccines, the first in human history and huge technological innovations. We will see more innovations throughout 2021 in both Covid-19 test kits and new vaccine candidates. 

Trend 2: Continued expansion of remote working and videoconferencing

This area has seen rapid growth during the pandemic, and it will likely continue growing in 2021. 

Zoom, which grew from a startup in 2011 to going public in 2019, became a household name during the pandemic. Other existing large corporate tools such as Cisco’s Webex, Microsoft’s Teams, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and Verizon’s BlueJeans are also providing state-of-the-art videoconferencing systems, facilitating remote work across the globe.

Many new ventures are emerging in the remote working sector. Startups Bluescape, Eloops, Figma, Slab, and Tandem have all provided visual collaboration platforms enabling teams to create and share content, interact, track projects, train employees, run virtual team-building activities, and more. 

These tools also help distributed teams keep track of shared learning and documentation. Users can create a virtual office that replicates working together in person by letting colleagues communicate and collaborate with one another easily. 

Trend 3: Contactless delivery and shipping remain as the new normal 

The U.S. has seen a 20 percent increase in preference for contactless operations, with various industries implementing alternative processes. 

No-contact delivery is the new normal. DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart all offer drop-off delivery options, reportedly borne from customer desires to minimize physical contact. Grubhub and Uber Eats also grew their contactless delivery options and will continue to do so in 2021. 

China-based delivery apps like Meituan, which was the first company in China to implement contactless delivery in Wuhan, began using autonomous vehicles to help fulfill grocery orders to customers. While Meituan tested this technology last year, the company recently launched this service publicly.

China is not the only country looking to push robotic deliveries into its next phase. U.S.-based startups Manna, Starship Technologies, and Nuro are tackling this problem using robotics and artificial intelligence-based applications.

Trend 4: Telehealth and telemedicine flourish 

Institutions, especially in health care, are working to lower the exposure of Covid-19 to patients and workers. Many private and public practices have started implementing more telehealth offerings such as doctor-patient video chats, A.I. avatar-based diagnostics, and no-contact-based medication delivery. 

Telehealth visits have surged by 50 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. IHS Technology predicted that 70 million Americans would use telehealth by 2020. Since then, Forrester Research predicted the number of U.S. virtual care visits will reach almost a billion early in 2021. 

Teladoc Health, Amwell, Livongo Health, One Medical, and Humana are some of the public companies offering telehealth services to meet the current needs. 

Startups are not far behind. Startups like MDLive, MeMD, iCliniq, K Health98point6, Sense.ly, and Eden Health have also contributed toward meeting the growing needs in 2020, and will continue offering creative solutions in 2021. Beyond telehealth, in 2021 we can expect to see health care advancements in biotech and A.I., as well as machine learning opportunities (example: Suki AI) to support diagnosis, admin work, and robotic health care.

Trend 5: Online education and e-learning as part of the educational system

Covid-19 fast-tracked the e-learning and online education industry. During this pandemic, 190 countries have enforced nationwide school closures at some point, affecting almost 1.6 billion people globally. 

There is a major opportunity with schools, colleges, and even coaching centers conducting classes via videoconferencing. Many institutions have actually been recommended to pursue a portion of their curriculum online even after everything returns to normal.

17zuoye, Yuanfudao, iTutorGroup, and Hujiang in China, Udacity, Coursera, Age of Learning, and Outschool in the U.S., and Byju’s in India are some of the top online learning platforms that have served the global community during the pandemic and will continue to do so in 2021 and beyond.

Trend 6: Increased development of 5G infrastructure, new applications, and utilities

There is no doubt that demand for higher-speed internet and a shift toward well-connected homes, smart cities, and autonomous mobility have pushed the advancement of 5G-6G internet technology. In 2021, we will see new infrastructure and utility or application development updates both from the large corporations and startups.

Many telcos are on track to deliver 5G, with Australia having rolled it out before Covid-19. Verizon announced a huge expansion of its 5G network in October 2020, which will reach more than 200 million people. In China, 5G deployment has been happening rapidly. But Ericsson is leading the charge globally. There are more than 380 operators currently investing in 5G. More than 35 countries have already launched commercial 5G services. 

Startups like Movandi are working to help 5G transfer data at greater distances; startups including Novalume help municipalities manage their public lighting network and smart-city data through sensors. Nido Robotics is using drones to explore the sea floor. 

Through 5G networks, these drones help navigate better and use IoT to help communicate with devices on board. Startups like Seadronix from South Korea use 5G to help power autonomous ships. The 5G networks enable devices to work together in real time and help enable vessels to travel unmanned.

Development of 5G and 6G technology will drive smart-city projects globally and will support the autonomous mobility sector in 2021. 

Trend 7: A.I., robotics, internet of things, and industrial automation grow rapidly

In 2021, we expect to see huge demand and rapid growth of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and industrial automation technology. As manufacturing and supply chains are returning to full operation, manpower shortages will become a serious issue. Automation, with the help of A.I., robotics, and the internet of things, will be a key alternative solution to operate manufacturing. 

Some of the top technology-providing companies enabling industry automation with A.I. and robotics integration include: 

UBTech Robotics (China), CloudMinds (U.S.), Bright Machines (U.S.), Roobo (China), Vicarious (U.S.), Preferred Networks (Japan), Fetch Robotics (U.S.), Covariant (U.S.), Locus Robotics (U.S.), Built Robotics (U.S.), Kindred Systems (Canada), and XYZ Robotics (China). 

Trend 8: Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies usage rises

Augmented reality and virtual reality have grown significantly in 2020. These immersive technologies are now part of everyday life, from entertainment to business. The arrival of Covid-19 has prompted this technology adoption as businesses turned to the remote work model, with communication and collaboration extending over to AR and VR.

The immersive technologies from AR and VR innovations enable an incredible source of transformation across all sectors. AR avatars, AR indoor navigation, remote assistance, integration of A.I. with AR and VR, mobility AR, AR cloud, virtual sports events, eye tracking, and facial expression recognition will see major traction in 2021. Adoption of AR and VR will accelerate with the growth of the 5G network and expanding internet bandwidth.

Companies like Microsoft, Consagous, Quytech, RealWorld One, Chetu, Gramercy Tech, Scanta, IndiaNIC, Groove Jones, etc. will play a significant role in shaping our world in the near future, not only because of AR’s and VR’s various applications but also as the flag carrier of all virtualized technologies.

Trend 9: Continued growth in micromobility

While the micromobility market had seen a natural slowdown at the beginning of Covid-19 spread, this sector has already recovered to the pre-Covid growth level. E-bikes and e-scooters usage is soaring, since they are viewed as convenient transportation alternatives that also meet social distancing norms. Compared to the pre-Covid days, the micromobility market is expected to grow by 9 percent for private micromobility and by 12 percent for shared micromobility.

There are hundreds of miles of new bike lanes created in anticipation. Milan, Brussels, Seattle, Montreal, New York, and San Francisco have each introduced 20-plus miles of dedicated cycle paths. The U.K. government announced that diesel and petrol-fueled car sales will be banned after 2030, which has also driven interest in micromobility as one of the alternative options.

Startups are leading the innovation in micromobility. Bird, Lime, Dott, Skip, Tier, and Voi are key startups leading the global micromobility industry.  

China has already seen several micromobility startups reach unicorn status, including OfoMobike, and Hellobike

Trend 10: Ongoing autonomous driving innovation

We will see major progress in autonomous driving technology during 2021. Honda recently announced that it will mass-produce autonomous vehicles, which under certain conditions will not require any driver intervention. Tesla’s Autopilot not only offers lane centering and automatic lane changes, but, from this year, can also recognize speed signs and detect green lights.

Ford is also joining the race, anticipating an autonomous driving cars ridesharing service launch in 2021. The company could also make such vehicles available to certain buyers as early as 2026. Other automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, are also trying to integrate some degree of autonomous driving technology in their new models from 2021. GM intends to roll out its hands-free-driving Super Cruise feature to 22 vehicles by 2023. 

The fierce market competition is also accelerating self-driving technology growth in other companies, including Lyft and Waymo. Billions of dollars have been spent in acquiring startups in this domain: GM acquired Cruise for $1 billion; Uber acquired Otto for $680 million; Ford acquired Argo AI for $1 billion; and Intel acquired Mobileye for $15.3 billion.

Looking ahead

Technology development in 2021 will be somewhat of a continuation of 2020, but the influence of Covid-19 will evolve during the year. Many of our new behaviors will become part of the new normal in 2021, helping drive major technological and business innovations.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the name of Meituan as Meituan Dianping. The company’s name had recently changed.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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