Each year the Future Today Institute releases a very comprehensive trend study during SXSW. I just finished getting through this very comprehensive installment. In announcing this year’s report, Founder Amy Webb had this to say:
The cataclysmic events of the past year resulted in a significant number of new signals. As a result, we’ve analyzed nearly 500 tech and science trends across multiple industry sectors. Rather than squeezing the trends into one enormous tome as we usually do, we are instead publishing 12 separate reports with trends grouped by subject. We are including what we’ve called Book Zero, which shows how we did our work. There is also an enormous, 504-page PDF with all content grouped together as one document.
Well, Amy was not kidding, there is quite a bit to digest. The 12 separate reports referenced can be downloaded Here. As I do with each look into the future, I captured some highlights from this year’s trend study. I will start however with an important observation that Amy made in the opening of the report.
The 1920s began in chaos. Cataclysmic disruption resulting from the first world war and the Spanish flu shuttered businesses and provoked xenophobia. Technological marvels like the radio, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, moving assembly line and electronic power transmission generated new growth, even as the wealth gap widened. More than two-thirds of Americans survived on wages too low to sustain everyday living. The pace of scientific innovation—the discovery of insulin, the first modern antibiotics, and insights into theoretical physics and the structure of atoms—forced people to reconsider their cherished beliefs. The sheer scale of change, and the great uncertainty that came with it, produced two factions: those who wanted to reverse time and return the world to normal, and those who embraced the chaos, faced forward, and got busy building the future. It’s difficult not to see striking parallels to our modern world.Amy Webb – 2021 Tech Trends Report
I have linked back to that same 1920s period several times, most recently in my post on A Post-Pandemic Society. The parallels are indeed striking – let’s hope we have learned the lessons of history. In the here and now, we have so much to think about, as this trend study clearly shows. Here is a small sample of what science and technology have in store for society.
From the report: Research labs now use AI systems to speed the process of scientific discovery. Materials scientists at the University of British Columbia now rapidly test a new kind of solar cell and log results using a robot overseen by an AI algorithm. Based on the results of each experiment, an algorithm determines what to change next. A 9-to-12-month process was completed in five days. Google’s DeepMind developed a way of testing and modeling the complex folding patterns of long chains of amino acids, solving a problem that has vexed scientists for many years. An international team crowdsourced a Covid antiviral by synthesizing candidates for 2,000 molecules in less than 48 hours—a process that likely would have taken human researchers a month or longer.
My take: the speed at which vaccines for Covid-19 were developed speaks to the possibilities. The eradication of disease and disability should accelerate, mirroring that period of the early 20th century where infectious diseases were addressed. A new period of advancement in our human development is possible. One additional critical note on AI from the report: China’s unified march to advance AI puts the emerging superpower dangerously far ahead of the West. Artificial intelligence is just one of the dominant geopolitical stories of our time.
HEALTH AND WELLNESS
From the report: Because of its scale and reach, Amazon could force pharmaceutical manufacturers to lower drug costs, just as it pushed down the average prices of other product categories available on its retail site. Health care is the next battleground for big tech companies. Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook see health care as ripe for disruption – and an industry where they can make positive improvements.
My take: I believe health and wellness will experience the most change of any domain. This amazon example is just one of several indicators that an emerging health and wellness ecosystem will completely transform the space as we know it. That ecosystem will include games that treat certain conditions and diseases, smart mirrors, smart toilets, and home-based care.
From the report: Companies are now mapping the real world to generate synthetic digital twins. Amazon has been studying Snohomish County in Washington, building realistic simulations of the region’s roads, buildings, and traffic. Its maps are reported to be accurate down to the centimeter, precisely tracking subtle gradients in pavement and noting unique markings on sidewalks. Amazon fused maps and 3D data to build synthetic versions of the county to test delivery drones. These kinds of virtual environments will be necessary as the company moves drones from research labs into the mainstream. Amazon tested its Scout delivery robot in the real world, having trained it in the synthetic environment.
My take: Back in 2012, the Blurring of Boundaries was a key theme of mine. Collapsing boundaries between industries was central to that theme, but the feeling that boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds would eventually collapse was also strong. This section of the report does a great job of describing all the innovations that likely make this a reality.
From the report: As 5G gains adoption and creates faster and more stable connections (even if it takes a decade to fully take hold because users need to upgrade devices), we are already asking how to build more immersive news experiences. This is a unique opportunity to bring audiences into actual news events. How would it have felt to experience, in almost real time, all of the marches for equality and social justice across the world during the summer of 2020? How will the masses react when they can regularly experience news, not just read, listen, or view it? And how will that impact our real-time conversations, opinions and lived experiences when we can all experience—not just watch—certain events in near real time together?
My take: if you experience the civil war virtually, would you learn about it better than reading about it? That’s a discussion pertinent for the education domain, focused on how to better educate and learn. Exposure to world experiences through video and reading has had both positive and negative impact. Positive in that we gain an appreciation for what others in the world experience, but negative when you consider the echo chambers that further divisions. But what if the scenario above places us right in the middle of a protest? No filtered content, no ability to create the narrative. If we experience the pain and suffering of someone firsthand, does it make us a more empathetic and compassionate society – or does it lead to more division?
From the report: A tech exodus from Silicon Valley has redistributed a highly-skilled workforce to other parts of the U.S. Plus, companies are rethinking long term investments in office space, where 69% of companies are planning to reduce their real estate footprint because of COVID-19. The global pandemic condensed a decade of digital transformation into a few months.
My take: a very popular conversation these days that I explored in a post on The Workforce of 2025. I believe there is a lot of guess work involved in understanding exactly where the near-term future of work is heading. Human nature is a powerful thing, and our craving for social interaction is likely to play a role. If an exodus from cities continues, then the implications for those cities, the workforce, and business are profound. But that’s a big “If”. Having said that, several myths about productivity were shattered. Digital transformation has indeed accelerated, ensuring that there is no return to normal. This discussion on work must be viewed in two ways: the short-term shift in the way we work, and the long term meaning of work.
From the report: The U.N. Global Compact encourages companies to make sustainability a priority from the top of the organization down into supply chains. India, Indonesia, and China have mandated reporting of sustainability practices, and they will begin publishing their findings. Levi Strauss & Co. partnered with the International Finance Corp. to provide lower interest rates for vendors that have sustainability practices in place. According to analytics firm First Insight, more than half of Gen Z customers surveyed prefer to buy from sustainable brands, and nearly three quarters are willing to pay more for sustainable products. A study last year by BNP Paribas showed that sustainability has become a major focus across many industries; since the onset of the pandemic, a quarter of respondents became more focused on sustainability measures within their organizations. Many companies see sustainability as a value-add for all of their key stakeholders. Other companies can follow suit by developing long-term strategy, vision, and R&D plans to create new business opportunities, which create value for shareholders while also helping the planet. Corporate sustainability is a growing concern among consumers and investors who hope to see both economic value and good-faith efforts to mitigate business’s role in climate change.
My take: purpose is no longer a buzzword. That last point on Gen Z is just one of the factors pushing purpose (here specifically sustainability) to the forefront. Activist investors, techno-philanthropists, and wall street are all playing a role in this movement. As a result, early talk of Stakeholder Capitalism feels more real. Every model has complexity however, and a shift from shareholder to stakeholder will come with its own set. Periods prior to the 1980s had elements of stakeholder capitalism, and businesses struggled with priorities and serving too many masters. But, as you will see throughout the trends study, sustainability is driving a shift that is not likely to reverse.
From the report: The pandemic spurred e-commerce sales, which jumped 71% in the second quarter of 2020 and 55% in the third, according to Salesforce. The result: more freight vehicles, which complicate traffic and safety on city streets. In Aspen, Colorado, trucks from 28 major shippers, including FedEx and Sysco, use Coord’s digital curb app to reserve and prepay for delivery zones. Cities set pricing premiums for peak periods, incentivizing drivers to spread deliveries throughout the day. At least 15 U.S. cities are reforming their curb space to better manage competition for deliveries, improve safety, and generate greater revenue. The CurbFlow app identifies idlers in high-traffic areas like airports and cultural venues, detects illegal parking, and counts passengers inside vehicles to enforce carpool lanes and incentivize rideshares.
My take: in yet another example of pandemic-as-accelerant, future forms of delivery are accelerating – specifically in the last-mile. I expect to see a lot of innovation in the delivery space this year. The other aspect of this trend that sometimes goes unnoticed is city revenue. There are several scenarios emerging that eliminate current revenues (parking, traffic fines, etc.). Looking for new forms of revenue will be a city priority. One small example is provided above regarding prepaid delivery zones. Speaking of city revenue…
From the report: The costs incurred by companies from municipal curb management will likely be passed on to consumers, and the free shipping we’ve enjoyed may disappear. Smart curb pricing will spur a new wave of revenue-generating urban infrastructure that offers more dynamic and detailed pricing structure using new technologies such as cameras, sensors, and apps. This approach could lead cities to charge fees to drivers who take certain streets during high-traffic periods, ultimately incentivizing them to take alternate routes or travel at different times of day. Cities could also charge for excessive trash pickup, especially during snowstorms, or charge for noise pollution, including loud construction and modified drag-racing cars.
My take: creativity will be applied as cities look for alternative forms of revenue. While innovations like autonomous vehicles will reduce or eliminate current sources of revenue, innovation will also create others.
From the report: California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a digital dividend that would allow state residents to share in the profits of big tech companies. There are already city-scale experimental universal basic income (UBI) programs running in Oakland and Stockton, California. The Stockton project initially gave 125 randomly selected low income families $500 a month for 18 months; recipients spent the money on utility bills, credit card debt, groceries, and dental work. The program, deemed successful, was extended into 2021. With rising unemployment and financial loss, COVID-19 gave UBI programs new momentum. Germany launched a new UBI program in August 2020 similar to the Stockton experiment: 120 Germans are receiving 1,200 euros ($1,430) every month for three years. Researchers are comparing the UBI group with a control group not receiving basic income, to determine the impact on everyday life. Spain launched a UBI program for its lowest-income families and is distributing 1,015 euros ($1,145) to those in need. Kenya’s UBI program, the largest and longest-running UBI experiment in the world, is five years into a 12-year experiment period. More than 20,000 people receive monthly payments, no strings attached.
My take: success in programs like UBI will take a mindset shift – and shifting minds is hard to do. On our current path, technology companies will dominate the world – Amy Webb describes that world in her book titled The Big Nine. In that world, where a handful of companies have massive wealth, a digital dividend is not a big leap. In fact, if the future of work goes to places that some predict – it’s in the best interest of these companies to have members of society that can pay for their products and services.
From the report: As more devices and vehicles rely on battery power, the race to produce a lighter, more efficient battery is more competitive than ever. New technology promises to extend the life of car batteries, which could reduce the degradation process and allow batteries to outlive the vehicles they power. Ultimately the industry strives to produce a battery that could power up to a million miles of drive time before needing replacement. In the coming years, an unprecedented number of charging stations for electric vehicles will come online, driving demand for a new kind of car and disrupting the supply chain and retail business of traditional gasoline. At the broader geopolitical level, China plans to transport clean energy all around the world, and its Belt and Road Initiative could facilitate that effort. Fifty years from now, we may rely more on China than on OPEC countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Algeria, Angola, and Ecuador) for our energy needs.
My take: energy transitions have ushered in the most transformative periods in our human history. We are on the verge of experiencing another one. The early topic on sustainability and its drivers serves as another catalyst for this transition. There are several challenges ahead, like recycling old batteries and charging electric cars from clean sources. Perhaps the biggest challenge is in the geopolitical domain – resources are critical to advancing this transition – and power struggles are likely.
From the report: In 2018, an international, independent team of scientists, called the Anthropocene Working Group, found enough evidence to support the official declaration of a new geological epoch. Despite early debate, concrete, publicly available research now corroborates the designation. Humans have left a permanent mark on the planet with chemicals and industrial waste, pavement, plastic, nuclear fallout, everyday garbage, pesticide runoff. Before COVID-19, the World Health Organization identified climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, noting that environmental degradation might allow a spectrum of diseases to flourish. Direct air capture systems are being developed to vacuum CO2 molecules from the air. In an effort to drive a reusable CO2 marketplace, CarbonX offered a $20 million prize to companies that develop innovative ways to use captured CO2.
The University of Southern California predicts mass migration to Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, and other landlocked urban centers as well as rural Midwestern areas. The federal Global Change Research Program predicts heavier rainfall, 8-foot sea level increases in the next century, earlier spring snowmelt, reduced snowpack, and chronic, long-term drought. Climate change will force 63 million South Asians and 1.7 million Mexicans from their homes by 2050, while another 1.5 million Ethiopians will have to search for new sources of food and water. A recent World Bank report projected climate change could result in 143 million “climate migrants” by 2050, as people escape crop failure, water scarcity, and rising seawater. With sea levels rising, future communities may need to be built at sea, incorporating renewable energy sources, indoor vertical farms, and underwater communications systems.
My take: so much can be linked to climate change. From ongoing bouts of extreme weather, pandemics and mass migrations to issues with our food and water. A number of advancements are likely to help with these challenges. Whether it’s innovation that makes productive use of carbon, or advances in life sciences that aid in handling disease, a number of these topics are tightly linked. Speaking of tightly linked…
From the report: Vast amounts of precious rare-earth elements and metals—which are used in much of today’s technology hardware – exist on the moon and in meteors and asteroids. Mining those minerals in outer space could be a lucrative venture as well as a cunning geopolitical strategy, because China currently controls 95% of rare-earth element production. Amazon, SpaceX, Google, and others are developing satellite technology that would beam internet services directly to our devices, and in the process bypass our internet service providers (ISPs). OneWeb has plans to power what it calls “fiber-like internet” coverage in the Arctic. New space-based internet services will rely on a complex array of microsat constellations and ground stations. SpaceX and Amazon are working on services to bring internet service to people in areas neglected by traditional wireless carriers and ISPs.
My take: so many areas of intersection when we look at space. From a race for rare-earth elements and metals to connecting the globe, the topic of space is more than it seems. It may even be connected to climate change: finding a new place to live if the earth ceases to be hospitable. Let’s call that – plan B.
From the report: Imagine a future where you no longer take medication – instead, your cells are simply reprogrammed to fight off whatever ails you. Or you bite into a thick, juicy tomahawk steak that’s grilled to perfection—and vegan-friendly, because it’s made from plant-based proteins. Last year marked the first time a marketed drug used mRNA vaccines. Unlike traditional vaccines, which use weakened bits of a live virus or bits of dead virus, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines instead used mRNA to overwrite the code in our cells. This breakthrough technology falls under the umbrella of synthetic biology. Researchers believe that sending new instructions into our cells could help protect us against a number of viruses in the very near future. An mRNA vaccine to fully immunize people against malaria is in the works.
Creating Synthetic Wombs – in an experiment at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers successfully printed and implanted synthetic ovaries in mice that resulted in a successful pregnancy. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia created an artificial womb called a “biobag” and used it to successfully keep premature lambs alive and developing normally for 28 days. We are still years away from synthesizing and growing a full-size organic womb—but the biobag represents an intervention that could help the thousands of premature babies born before 25 weeks each year.
My take: the convergence of the physical, digital, and biological. There is so much to unpack here. The number of constructive outcomes possible in our continued efforts to advance human development are overwhelming. So too are the potential destructive paths. This specific topic is a great case study for the need to Balance the Opposing Forces of Innovation.
From the report: By 2050, we must increase agriculture production by 70% to meet projected global demand for food. Traditional farming methods won’t cut it. That shortfall has spawned a new generation of agriculture technology startups. Dozens of startup accelerators have popped up, and big tech firms such as Microsoft and Amazon have built new businesses to support high-tech farms. The availability of sensors, new types of irrigation, improved lighting, and more efficient ways to capture and process data promise to modernize and decentralize the agricultural sector. In the future, you may buy meat at a local microbrewery that “brews” meat instead of beer. In a somewhat agricultural context, artificial trees can absorb carbon dioxide. The “leaves” are plastic-like discs that absorb CO2 in the air and wind. When filled, the leaves drop down into the “trunk” and onward into pipes that collect the liquid CO2 for resale to beverage companies. Another approach is to convert atmospheric CO2 into carbon nanofibers for use in consumer and industrial products, such as wind turbine blades or airplanes.
My take: if we look closely at each of the topics covered so far, innovation seems to be appearing at just the right time. Continued innovation in agriculture is required if we are to meet the current and future challenges to our food system. That example of artificial trees shows another linkage to climate change. If I were to summarize one key take, it is that each of the broad topics described in this outstanding study are interconnected and converging on one and other. These studies are critical to not only seeing possible futures in each domain, but how those futures intersect. My thanks to Amy Webb and Future Today Institute team for their contributions to understanding these possible futures.