Ah, 2021. The year we’ve been looking forward for the entire century that was 2020.
Rationally, we know the calendar year is an arbitrary convention, and that, compared with just a few days ago, nothing is fundamentally different about the laws of physics.
Yet after a year predominantly defined by a devastating global pandemic and its ravaging consequences, we intuitively recognize the opportunity for improvement that this year will bring. Between vaccinations, changes in leadership, and the business confidence gained from everyone starting to feel like they know what they’re doing again, 2021 could be a big year for recovery.
But what else can we expect from it?
While I am sometimes billed as a futurist, I do not typically traffic in predictions. My work, I feel, is to make sense of the trends I’ve observed, note the direction they seem to be taking us, and offer nuanced insights through my writing, speaking, and advising so that people can make strategic decisions with it.
Because of the many divergent patterns of 2020, 2021 is still a bit of a mystery. What the covid-19 pandemic laid bare, vaccines will hopefully begin to put right, but it will take time, it will require public confidence, and the “normal” we eventually return to will be markedly different in several ways.
Still, there are some emerging themes from 2020 that have already determined some of the key themes for 2021. I’ll review some of them below.
Accelerated Digital Transformation
I’ve read a range of speculations by many observers that the past year accelerated digital transformation by as much as six or seven years. If I look at my client company roadmaps, such as retailers, consumer products, and others who have had to overcome barriers to connection with customers and the marketplace as a whole, I would have to agree, at least in one part.
Digital transformation is about transforming business models and practices to align with data-centered commerce and optimization. Part of that is workplace transformation — readying the organization, infrastructure, etc to deal with remote, contract, robots, virtual, etc. We certainly saw that happen (see next section). Part is operational and supply chain transformation. We saw a lot of that, too. Another part, though, is job transformation — recognizing the evolution of roles and job scopes. I’m not sure we saw as much of that this past year, and the delay in facing those changes could mean greater displacement across human job roles.
Companies need to be thinking about re-skilling and up-skilling workers alongside their automation and digitization efforts. As I’ve written and said many times, we’re going to see companies thrive who have prioritized understanding how to lead combined teams of humans and machines. Where automation has been introduced, such as in call centers, human input often means nuanced decision making, contextual problem solving, and judgment calls that are essential to providing worthwhile customer experience. But all of this takes planning and investment.
Changes to the Workplace
A distinction I make in my work is between the future of work and the future of jobs, but increasingly, especially throughout the pandemic, I pointed out to my clients that it was worth thinking separately about the future of the workplace, as well.
There’s the workplace which is wherever you are working right now: at your home office, on your sofa, in bed — I’m not judging. And then there’s the workplace which is understood to be the center of the work, the headquarters, the office, the campus, what-have-you.
This latter workplace has a whole new set of features, related to its ability to provide for teams that need to be together, to keep people safe, to monitor their safety, to facilitate efficiency so that people may be able to show up for a meeting, get that meeting done, and leave — reducing their time of exposure to one another.
Obviously covid-19 has forced some key changes around remote and distributed work, and many of those are permanent. So remote work will persist. But we will also want to go back to offices and physical workplaces occasionally, when it makes sense. The trick is going to be in figuring out when it makes sense.
But how will the change in our lives from coronavirus further affect how we work and what we can expect from our employers, our employees, and the workplace in general?
Thinking past this moment is critical for us to be able to begin building our businesses for the future we are now creating.
The coronavirus pandemic is a form of exponential change that has affected us all. But collectively we face several other kinds of exponential change: climate change, AI and other emerging technologies, and the fallout of geopolitical upheavals in combination with these things.
This year has also forced some existential discussions about what is “essential” work, and it isn’t necessarily the stuff that can be done remotely or in distributed teams. It isn’t necessarily knowledge work.
A lot of the functions that have been increasingly relegated to gig economy and sharing economy types of work, like delivery, are crucial when people need to maintain social distance. Whether you agree or disagree with California’s new gig economy law, the takeaway seems to be a trend toward fewer protections for this category of workers. We will have to think more holistically about the shifting ecosystem of services and protections to make the economy that’s emerging work for everyone.
Touchless/Contactless Solutions and Remote Services
Touchless goes beyond the pandemic — it’s about speed and efficiency, too.
And while these solutions distance us from each other, we need to recognize what is meaningful in these interactions. We are trading off human interaction, but investing in the ability to trust that we are safe.
Meanwhile it’s been interesting to observe the stock market’s reactions to big IPOs like DoorDash and AirBNB, but also the cycles of enthusiasm — and lack of enthusiasm — around quarantine experiences like Zoom, Peloton, etc.
The category of services that has enabled many people to work at home and work out at home isn’t going anywhere. In fact the sentiment toward them may even evolve from feeling like ‘prison’ accessories to feeling like tools of freedom once people have greater choice in whether to stay home or leave.
The Quest for the Virtual Third Place Goes On
Let’s face it: by April, we were all Zoom’ed out.
While Zoom and the other video call and virtual meeting platforms helped us do almost everything in 2020, we all got a little fatigued.
But because so many of us spent our work life and home life in the same physical space for much of this year, we are craving an opportunity to break free. And even if it has to happen in the same physical space, what people want is a third space, even virtually, that can make them feel they’ve escaped the confines of their rectangular boxes.
From concerts in Fortnite to Animal Crossing and Among Us, people tried a lot of different approaches to re-creating a third place. There were lots of effort to make virtual spaces more immersive, but they’re still not a full third place experience.
The value of immersive games like Animal Crossing and Among Us, for example, is that they simulate movement through space, and for people who are craving a release from the confines of their homes, that kinesthetic stimulation is huge.
Immersive virtual reality experiences are where most people are looking, but I tend to be more bullish about augmented reality than virtual reality. I still think AR is the most exciting tech field yet to be fully realized, and between Apple including LiDAR in its new devices and Google doubling down on AR mapping of places, I think and hope we’re on the cusp of a big wave there.
Take a look at this cool TikTok demo of what LiDAR can add to AR experiences:
We all know it isn’t ideal. But then again, since we’ve demonstrated that we can perform much of the functional requirements of a conference or event by having it online, we will continue to do so, even as conferences move back to physical venues.
As someone who makes the better part of my living from keynote speaking, the switch to all-virtual-all-the-time was a big adjustment, from a technology and equipment perspective, from a content perspective, from a presentation skills perspective, and yes, from a financial perspective. Event planners often weren’t confident they had the budget for “normal” keynote fees, because they weren’t confident attendees would pay or that sponsors would back them. But we dug in, found where we could solve problems and add value, and ended up having a pretty successful year, all things considered.
Certainly the value proposition is different with virtual-only events, or even with a virtual offering that complements an in-person event, as we’re about to see a lot of throughout the balance of 2021.
Still, at a fundamental level, the challenge is much the same as it is across industries this year: The overarching theme of 2020-2021 is “solve a problem of actual value.” Attendees need to know that this experience will be different from the hours they already spend on video calls. No one wants to pay a registration fee just to sit at their desk and be bored. And sponsors especially need to see ROI, which can be challenging in a virtual format — despite some of the more creative attempts I’ve seen to make virtual show floors and have sponsors available to book virtual demos with attendees. There needs to be a better way to involve attendees in reviewing the sponsorships and fostering sales opportunities when it makes sense.
Across the board, it’s going to take going back to that old chestnut: creativity. We need to rethink the value pipeline, and savvy sponsors will have already started. Whether that means creating a wrapper around the entire experience so that the ROI is less contingent on showroom demos or facilitating some sort of immersive content that speaks with targeted relevance to the attendees, the best results will come from good old fashioned marketing strategy and experience design.
Stories and Ephemeral Content
Last year we got “stories” on every platform. What does this trend towards ephemeral content mean? Philosophically perhaps it gives us a chance to think about what time means in the human experience. Meanwhile, strategically it means acknowledging the difference between content of durable substance and content that is of a shorter-term, more whimsical, more time-sensitive, promotional nature.
Trust, Truth, and What Happens Now
One of the projects I’ve been embarking on is a deep dive into the nature of trust and truth, how they relate to human experience, how they shape our relationship with technology, and what happens when truth is questioned and trust is eroded. In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are critically important for us to understand.
I’ll leave this section brief because I’ll be writing much more on this topic very soon (watch this space) but in the meantime, it’s worth taking this question back to your own work and asking some probing questions about how these shifting dynamics affect your products, services, and interactions.
Commitment to Climate Mitigation Needed
The pandemic was the big story, but over and over we kept hearing how we had the opportunity to turn the momentum we gained from temporary carbon reductions during lockdown into real climate progress. But those reductions often reversed whenever restrictions were lifted, and a late 2020 UN report showed that the world is still heading for a temperature increase this century in excess of 3°C.
It’s clear that we need commitments from governments, industry, and all stakeholders to make substantial impacts while we can. Sustainability must become intrinsic to strategy, and operations must follow.
Social Justice and Reform
No review of 2020’s overarching themes would be complete without acknowledging the push for social justice, and how that showed up in efforts that brands and platforms made — whether that was to perform wokeness, or to strive for real relevance, to genuinely try to amplify BIPOC voices, and to begin to redress disparities in representation and leadership. The opportunity in 2021 will be to put real resources behind these efforts, because as I pointed out in “Tech Humanist“:
“Diversity of backgrounds on a team not only feels good and is the right direction to pursue, but it leads to significant improvements to the bottom line. Diverse firms have been shown to be more innovative, with more diverse companies 45 percent more likely to enjoy growth in market share and 70 percent more likely to break into new markets. A 2009 study also showed that companies with more racial diversity had fifteen times more sales revenue than those with low racial diversity.”— Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans
by Kate O’Neill
There’s more, but let’s leave it there for now, because that’s a lot.
We’re at a critical moment for action across much of our existence. In the Sustainable Development Goals framework established by the United Nations, we are now in the “decade of action.” In the year and years ahead, it’s critical that we make progress on climate mitigation, AI ethics, a plan for human workers displaced by automation, and much more — not to mention, of course, overcoming the current pandemic and preparing for one in the future. It’s going to take big-picture thinking that centers humanity. It’s going to take a strategic sort of optimism. For businesses, the right investments in human-centric digital transformation will pay dividends. For cities, the right investments in meaningful human experiences will be worthwhile. For all of us, it’s an opportunity to focus on what matters, and what is going to matter.
We’ll be right here. Let us know how we can help.
Here’s wishing you all the best for 2021 and beyond.