The year 2020 gave rise to what I call The Covid Paradox, where the pandemic slowed down the world, but accelerated change While it was the year of the virus, it was also the year that science and technology came into its own. A vaccine in less than a year, the unstoppable rise of Elon Musk, startling new advances in artificial intelligence with GPT 3 and AlphaFold 2, and the tech backlash were some of the big tech events. As humanity welcomes 2021 with an almost desperate hope and optimism, would science and technology continue to shape the world? I have decided to be brave, and foolish, to predict what 2021 will bring. “A good forecaster,” said a wise man, “is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organized.” So here is my ignorance, encapsulated into my top seven tech predictions for 2021.
Vaccines will continue to be the biggest story of 2021. However, the focus on mRNA will go beyond just the covid vaccine as a promising technique to attack some of our most dangerous diseases, notably cancer. Dr. Özlem Türeci and Dr. Ugur Sahin, the celebrated wife-husband pair, who moulded their mRNA passion and research into the first vaccine, the BioNTech-Pfizer one, will win a Nobel Prize in 2021.
World War III will not be fought between nations, but between Big Tech and national regulators. The EU and Europe have sounded the battle-horn against Google and Facebook, China has taken the unprecedented step of shooting down the $37 billion Ant initial public offer, and even the laissez faire US asked for the breakup of Facebook. Big Tech has become as powerful, if not more, as any nation-state, and the state is hitting back. With Democrats in the saddle in the US, 2021 will see even bigger confrontations. Perhaps a sign of the things to come was evident when Microsoft became the first corporation to open a UN representative office. Expect more companies to do so.
Bitcoin will go mainstream. This has already begun, with PayPal allowing crypto spending, and both Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan appointing executives to head digital assets. As Bitcoin moves from the realms of technology and libertarian idealists to Wall Street and Main Street, its price has surged past $30,000. I expect it go beyond $50,000 in 2021; alternatively, it will drop below $5,000.
Work from anywhere (WFA) will become the done thing, going beyond mere work from home (WFH). We will work out of home, offices and anywhere else we can be. Expect some companies to make WFA a permanent policy, as work becomes decentralized, and the 50% drop in business travel predicted by Bill Gates becomes a reality.
This Great Decentralization will not only be in work, but also in retail (with e-commerce and omnichannels), hospitality (more AirBnb-style stays than bookings at mammoth hotels), education (hybrid college-home models), healthcare (hospitals and telemedicine) and various other sectors. Scott Galloway of the Stern School of Business calls it the Great Dispersion. This phenomenon, which was accelerated by the pandemic, will now be unstoppable.
Customer behaviour will change dramatically. It takes 21 days to form a habit, typically, and 90 to make it a behaviour. Unending lockdowns have irrevocably altered our behaviour in shopping, eating out, work, learning and healthcare. Companies need to adjust, and digital technologies, tools and expertise will be in great demand to make business models ‘as digital as possible’. Technology and strategy will not be different things for a company; its technology and business strategies will merge, as businesses scramble to become tech-at-core. Expect almost every business to embark on digital transformation journeys and scramble for chief digital officers.
Finally, we will see the Third Great Wall of China: the first was built centuries ago to keep out Eurasian invaders, the second was built in the last century to keep the Chinese internet apart from the global web. The third is being built now, but by the US and its allies, to prevent China from becoming a tech superpower. Think of the 5G telecom wars with Huawei and US sanctions on Chinese tech companies. This means that the tech world could get split into two: China’s tech offerings, evangelized through its Belt and Road and other initiatives, and the rest of the world’s.
It happened to be a 6th century Chinese poet, Lao Tzu, who said that “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” As I make my predictions, it’ll be the end of 2021 that will reveal which of the two camps I belong to.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters