If 2020 proved to be a year of hard lessons to learn, we enter the new year with a number of breakthroughs in the world of technology offering hope for businesses across the world.
From the rapid development of vaccines to the wider adoption of drones for good, The National's future editor Kelsey Warner highlights six tech trends that will define the decade to come.
Life breathed into life sciences
Two new vaccines, developed and brought to market in under a year using revolutionary mRNA technology, means the world is “coming off a huge win” headed into the 2020s, Eli Dourado, a Washington DC-based economist wrote in a recent blog post. “The ability to encode and deploy arbitrary mRNA in our bodies sure seems like a game changer.”
But what does this mean for the future of medicine? Targeting illness via algorithm.
The mRNA technology is capable of addressing far more than viruses.
Both Moderna and BioNTech have vaccine candidates targeting cancer, Mr Dourado noted. The companies use an algorithm to analyse the genetic sequences of the tumor and the patient’s healthy cells and predict which molecules could be used to generate a strong immune response against the cancer.
Although called a “cancer vaccine”, the treatment isn’t preventative and is only used on cancer patients.
“I was actually witnessing the cancer cells shrinking before my eyes,” said Brad Kremer, a melanoma patient who received the BioNTech treatment. “So let’s milk mRNA technology for all it’s worth this decade.”
Urban flight is a myth
Despite visa offers to tropical climes and various clickbait articles on becoming a digital nomad, a mass exodus from cities is largely an urban myth. This is what Wharton real estate professor Jessie Handbury, who has studied the rise of urbanisation in the 21st century, found.
While some large and expensive American cities, like Manhattan and San Francisco, saw a drop in population in 2020, “there isn’t much science to support the notion that metropolitan centres will begin to shrink after decades of growth spurred by young people”, she said.
Overall, more people in the world have lived in urban settings than in rural ones since 2010, according to the UN. And that isn’t going to change.
Once the pandemic is over, Professor Handbury noted, new businesses will open and replace the ones that closed – sparking an urban revival.
“Once the businesses are back up and running, and the uncertainty of demand has been resolved, you’ll see the traditional college graduates come in to fill in the ranks behind those families that maybe have accelerated their moves out to the suburbs.”
Meanwhile, office dwellers will demand better.
A survey at Nike found that its employees want to work from an office, but only for two days a week and with a larger emphasis on collaboration.
Office design needs to accommodate this “activity-based working”, Brittney Van Matre, Nike’s director of workplace strategy and operations, said in a LinkedIn post. She added that employers may have to woo employees back to some extent – headquarters should be slicker and more comfortable.
Another kind of urban flight will take wing
Drone deliveries will become a reality in the 2020s.
Drones are making deliveries with increasing regularity in rural areas all over the globe. Amazon is testing them in the UK, FedEx is doing so in Tennessee and Zipline has been providing health care services in Rwanda by drone for several years.
But city-wide regulations to deploy deliveries in an urban setting – and the infrastructure to put those regulations to use – was unprecedented until Dubai's Law No. 4 of 2020 was announced last summer.
The new drone law paves the way for the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation (DCAA) to implement its "Dubai Sky Dome" initiative, which aims to create a virtual airspace infrastructure and ecosystem for commercial drone use throughout the emirate.
Meanwhile, urban air mobility companies like California start-up Joby, which recently acquired Uber’s Elevate division and raised half a billion dollars in Series C funding at the start of 2020, aims to shuttle passengers in electric air taxis above congested city streets. Regulation is starting to catch up with reality.
Wearables start to meet their futuristic potential
Fitbits and Apple Watches are ubiquitous accessories these days, but the technology to count your steps, calculate your split times and measure your heart rate is not all that futuristic.
Advancements in machine learning and augmented reality are poised to make wearables a bit more impressive in the years ahead.
Stress is one of the first things wearable devices will tackle this decade. Garmin, Samsung and Apple, among others, are all using machine learning algorithms on metrics like heart rate variability to detect stress and help users cope.
Meanwhile, the British Army has begun trialling glasses with in-built artificial intelligence that will allow frontline medics to carry out operations in war zones.
Using the glasses, a Microsoft HoloLens 2, those on the ground will be able to share information about the injured, such as vital statistics, to seek help from medical experts located anywhere in the world in real time.
Digital banking finally reaches those who need it most
Digital cash transfers that get money directly to people who need it most have been a global lifeline during the pandemic.
According to the World Bank, 131 countries have either implemented new programmes or expanded existing ones since February, reaching 1.1 billion people.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's annual Goalkeepers report noted that India, "which had already invested in a world-class digital identity and payment system, was able to transfer cash to 200 million women almost immediately once the crisis hit. This not only reduced Covid-19’s impact on hunger and poverty but also advanced India’s long-term goal of empowering women by including them in the economy.
"Other countries facilitated new cash transfer systems with nimble policy changes. The eight members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, for example, allowed people to open accounts by text message or telephone and follow up later to verify their identity in person. More than 8 million West Africans signed up for accounts while their countries were in lockdown."
This rapid financial inclusion of millions of poor people around the world means the next decade will be an exciting – and meaningful – one for financial technology.
The recovery is not only green – it’s wild
In 2020, former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who is now a UN special envoy for climate change, said reducing emissions represented "the greatest commercial opportunity of our time" and asked investors to step in to help companies meet their net zero emissions targets.
The UN has recommended prioritising "green fiscal recovery" including direct support for zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, no new coal plants and promoting nature-based solutions – including large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation.
A nature-based approach, often referred to as rewilding, is a trend to watch, according to the quantitative forecasting firm Future Today Institute.
"The process is further facilitated by technological innovation, such as biomimicry devices to non-invasively influence animal behaviour, and replacing radio receivers with GPS trackers to enable superior monitoring systems," the company said in a recent newsletter.
Emerging bioscience can also reverse some of the damage and bring back what is being lost.
"Advances in synthetic biology could create never-before-seen organisms that slow or reverse the effects of climate damage by decomposing plastic or absorbing carbon, for example, creating stable, unpolluted environments in which to let flora and fauna thrive. The field could also produce alternative food sources or medical treatments for species threatened by extinction."