Top 2021 Tech Trends

Top 2021 Tech Trends

January 2021:

Top 2021 Tech Trends

2020 may be over, but its influence on tech trends continues through 2021.

When the clock struck midnight on January 1, the world let out a collective sigh of relief. 2020 wasn’t the best of years, and the hope is that 2021 will bring respite in the form of a COVID-19 vaccine that helps stop the spread of the virus and, therefore, lays the foundation for a global economic recovery. According to Deloitte’s latest CFO Signals report, which highlights Q4 2020, company CFOs appear optimistic upon entering 2021 and expect operations could approach near-normal sometime during the second half of next year. While fewer than a quarter (18%) of CFOs rated the North American economy as “good” right now, more than half (59%) expect better conditions by the end of 2021.

In 2020, a trend that sent shock waves through the technology industry was the seismic shift to remote everything. For instance, 2020 became the year of working from home, and adoption of various remote-work platforms and tools exploded almost overnight. Connectivity and the ability to accomplish tasks at home—from buying goods like groceries to attending international conferences—became more critical than perhaps ever before.

In the New Year, the parallel trend will be returning to work safely. There will be a better normal, but what that “normal” will be has yet to be determined. It’s probable that IoT (Internet of Things) technologies will play a prominent role in this transition. Meanwhile, as much of the workforce continues to work from home, privacy and security will be top of mind in 2021 as critical business will still need to be conducted remotely.

In the past year, technology companies have also had to step up to help in whatever way they could during a global pandemic that needed novel ways of monitoring occupancy/foot traffic and detecting elevated body temperatures. These technologies, among others, like sensors that monitor workplace air quality and promote, monitor, and/or enforce social distancing, will continue to be important as businesses map out what returning to work will look like in 2021.

Lingering financial ramifications of 2020 will play a role in IoT adoption in 2021. There will likely be more scrutiny in terms of IoT projects. Companies will ask: Are projects imperative or discretionary? These types of questions will be asked over and over again as the economy recovers in the next several years from the pandemic-induced recession. COVID-19 also exposed large gaps in the supply chain. Going forward, businesses that form a link in the supply chain will be looking at ways they can leverage the IoT to add predictability and visibility into more supply-chain processes.

Source: Gartner

Deloitte’s study suggests CFOs’ expectations for 2021 include things like a general trend toward M&As (mergers and acquisitions), broader offerings, smaller real-estate footprints, and diversified supply chains. What follows are five trends Connected World expects to see play out in the tech space in 2021.

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In Connected World’s 2020 trend piece, 2020 and the Decade of Enterprise Sustainability, Melissa Goodall, associate director of the Yale Office of Sustainability, said: “According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Governmental Panel on Climate Change), we have until 2030 to turn things around if we don’t want to get to the point of no return when it comes to climate change. This means we have to move beyond best practices to transformative change.” COVID-19 changed a lot in 2020, but it didn’t change the fact that sustainability must be a focus for businesses, governments, and individuals during the 2020s. If anything, the pandemic forced businesses to consider how they can leverage technology to maximize efficiencies, scale operations down, and move toward remote workforces—all efforts that can also help businesses achieve their sustainability goals.

Ajay Rane, vice president of business development at Sigfox, says as a technology company, there are several elements to consider when pursuing sustainability, including enclosures and packaging, the electronics themselves, and limiting the use of harmful lithium-ion batteries. Rane says as an industry, tech companies need to find ways to replace batteries with energy-harvesting devices wherever possible. “From that end, we have an initiative for energy harvesting that relies on a combination of solar cells or other technologies—whether it’s the action of the energy produced by opening a door or opening a package or getting the heat of a human body to power devices and a combination of that with energy storage devices … that’s just emerging, and we believe that’s the future of sustainable devices.”

Also, as an industry, Rane believes it will be important for tech companies to keep their eyes on the larger prize—global environmental sustainability—by sharing what works for them. He points to the fact that as a society, things will need to shift a bit more and suggests that they will.


“You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want a better environment, then you need to learn to reuse things. That’s a societal and psychological thing that we need to address, and, eventually, we will.”

Ajay Rane, Sigfox

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he says. “If you want a better environment, then you need to learn to reuse things. That’s a societal and psychological thing that we need to address, and, eventually, we will.”

Cloud computing may also play a role in reaching sustainability goals. Accenture says migrations to the public cloud can reduce CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year. That’s equal to taking 22 million cars off the road. Research from Gartner suggests spending on public cloud services will grow 18.4% in 2021 to reach nearly $305 billion, up from $257.5 billion in 2020. In many ways, the pandemic has validated the cloud’s value proposition, Gartner says, and sustainability is among the benefits enterprises see in its adoption, along with things like business continuity and cost efficiency.

Trend 2: IoT, 5G, AVs, and EVs drive manufacturing in the post-COVID era.

IoT adoption in the automotive space is moving at a different clip depending on the company, according to Laine Mears, professor of automotive manufacturing in Clemson University’s Dept. of Automotive Engineering. “There are companies like Tesla that are pushing technology more rapidly, but all of the big companies move at molasses speed when it comes to novel tech implementation on a vehicle. They are very gun-shy to potential warranty problems, which can put companies out of business overnight,” says Mears. “Look to smaller more agile and risk-tolerant companies to push the envelope (in 2021). There are enormous opportunities for AI (artificial intelligence) and self-aware vehicles to improve safety and efficiency. Automated driving is the next revolution that you are seeing starting to form. In 10 years, autonomous electric cars will be commonly available.”

Mears says the IoT will be critically important for manufacturing companies that want to gain a competitive edge in 2021 and beyond. “COVID-19 has actually driven tech development in terms of agile (rapid-response) manufacturing, and it has pointed out some real shortcomings in supply networks,” Mears says. “These are being examined closely and improved through targeting resilience (robustness to interruption).”

5G will also be key for manufacturers moving forward in a post-COVID world.

Source: PWC’s “5G in Manufacturing”

PWC’s latest research on 5G in manufacturing suggests the pandemic highlighted the need for more automation and smarter, more resilient supply chains across manufacturing. 5G can deliver these benefits and more, but though the interest in there, PWC suggests many manufacturers continue to take a “wait-and-see” approach.

One automotive manufacturing trend Mears expects to see in 2021 is lightweighting. “Manufacturing trends will follow design trends, which have been tending toward lightweighting, first in response to Obama-era fuel efficiency standards and now in response to EVs (electric vehicles), which use heavy batteries and are more range sensitive to mass,” Mears explains. “Lightweighting vehicles basically translates to multi-material bodies (includes aluminum, magnesium, really high-strength steels and composites—not just carbon fiber but other cheaper types too) instead of all mild steel as in the past 100 years.

  • 5 Tech Trends to Watch in 2021

    1. Sustainability will continue to be a driving topic of the decade.
    2. IoT, 5G, AVs, and EVs drive manufacturing in the post-COVID era.
    3. The IoT will increasingly connect the unconnectable.
    4. AI will advance and drive better decisionmaking.
    5. Smart cities will become more resilient.

        This means manufacturers must now deal with all different types of joints and therefore joining technology.”

        This is an upheaval for the space, one that raises questions for automotive manufacturers in the next couple of decades. “It is a big issue, not only for a capital-intensive floor full of spot welders that could become obsolete, but also in selecting what technologies to use for joining,” adds Mears. “We are not sure the long-term performance of some in terms of corrosion and fatigue, so what is a carmaker to do to have reliable vehicles that last 20 years and beyond?”

        Trend 3: The IoT will increasingly connect the unconnectable.

        Each year, IoT growth is projected and invested parties attempt to separate the hype from the reality. In 2020, the Eclipse Foundation released an IoT Commercial Adoption Survey that suggested about 40% of organizations were already deploying IoT solutions and 22% planned to deploy within two years. IoT investments were set to grow, with 40% of participating organizations saying they had plans to bump their IoT spending in the next fiscal year. However, the year took a turn no one could have anticipated. The expectation now is that companies will still invest in IoT as long as it’s a need and not just a want.

        Shiyu Zhou, a professor in the Dept. of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says in 2021, we will see more and more engineering applications of IoT technology in practice, which means more devices will be online. “Another trend in IoT will be the edge computing,” Zhou says.

        “Due to the fast development of federated learning, many IoT computational tasks will be complete at the edge instead of at a centralized cloud location.”

        New and cheaper IoT solutions will also continue to develop, opening up the IoT market to new industries and smaller businesses. “One major hurdle of broad application of IoT solutions is the ROI (return on investment) consideration,” explains Zhou. “For small and medium-size companies, cheap solutions will make their decisions of adopting IoT solutions easier.”

        Back in May, ABI Research predicted there would be an 18% drop in the net addition of IoT devices in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in the long run, the pandemic will most likely speed up IoT innovation and boost adoption.

        “Due to the fast development of federated learning, many IoT computational tasks will be complete at the edge instead of at a centralized cloud location.”

        Shiyu Zhou, University of Wisconsin, Madison

        “Due to the pandemic, people see more value in the remote solutions—e.g., remote condition monitoring, diagnosis etc.,” Zhou says. “Those remote solutions are based on IoT solutions.”

        In 2021, the IoT will be high priority in sectors looking to connect the previously unconnected. Look for new and increased applications in healthcare, smart buildings and offices, and smart cities, among others.

        Source: PWC’s “5G in Manufacturing”

        Trend 4: AI will advance and drive better decisionmaking.

        Up to this point, the focus of AI in commercial applications has been neural-net solutions identifying patterns in data and image analysis, according to AJ Abdallat, CEO and founder of AI solution provider Beyond Limits. This type of AI is called numeric AI. But in 2021, he expects a trend toward more sophisticated AI. “You can think of (numeric AI) as a ‘monkey see monkey do’ behavior,” he explains. “But what must be noted is neural-net only solutions cannot and do not reason. This limitation has been recognized over the last several years, but because there was still a lot of low-hanging fruit out there that only needed this kind of AI, not a lot of effort has been put on adding the missing piece of the puzzle, which is a thinking component.”

        A thinking component is different from a neural-net component in that it is not trained from data but educated from knowledge. Abdallat calls this “symbolic AI” and says symbolic AI uses knowledge to solve problems using inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning processes coupled with planning and scheduling. “But symbolic AI alone still has significant drawbacks, just as numeric AI has,” Abdallat adds. “Unlike neural nets, reasoning using AI techniques is slow, because it has to perform so many intermediate steps to accomplish a reasoning process.

        This means in 2021, the one thing you will see is the two separate schools of AI processing—neural nets and symbolic reasoning—will be united in what Beyond Limits calls ‘hybrid AI’. This is a very advanced form of AI that uses numeric AI to reduce the volumes of data to easily digestible features that the symbolic reasoners can efficiently use to achieve AI-based reasoning, not just AI pattern matching, as it is now.”

        Another AI trend to watch in 2021 is delivering AI at the extreme edge, where cloud infrastructures are intermittently available and/or not fast enough to deliver realtime answers for performance-sensitive applications like healthcare. This will help drive decisionmaking where it’s most critical.

        Abdallat says in 2021, AI decisionmaking will now start to include the roots of symbolic AI in their reasoning processes, so these systems will actually be able to begin to think like a person and explain their results. “Explainability is critical when you need to apply AI to any high-value asset, such as a person or expensive asset,” he says. “A fintech AI application would be relatively useless if the only thing it could do is say, ‘Buy 1 million shares of ‘X’ and sell off 2 million shares of ‘Y’ at no less than $3.25’, and when you ask why, its response is ‘I don’t know’.”

        Trend 5: Smart cities will become more resilient.

        Data storage, visualization, and analysis scaled to encapsulate all of a city’s systems are the next growth areas essential to creating smart and resilient cities, says Hiba Baroud, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, earth and environmental sciences, and electrical engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt University. “We have data,” she says. “Cameras, sensors, and systems are constantly capturing information from the complex, interconnected and heterogenous systems that make up a city. Our next important task is to develop the platforms that allow the vast amount of collected data to be organized in a way that provides correct and contextualized insights to facilitate smart decisionmaking.”

        To get there in 2021, Baroud says we will see the advancement of hybrid cloud solutions for data integration. “Every system within a city is unique. Data from transportation systems, water and energy utilities are monitored by separate infrastructure operators, in spite of their interdependence,” she explains. “This critical infrastructure also interacts with social systems like communities and policymakers. It is their interactions with each other and the environment that makes a city susceptible to short-term and long-term hazards. A city will be truly smart when it facilitates information sharing among decisionmakers instead of siloed operations.”

        In the year ahead, mechanisms to integrate and process all the data a city collects in 24 hours at scale, while simultaneously ensuring privacy and security will be a high priority. It will also be a year to reflect on what 2020 taught cities about how they can use IoT technologies to be more resilient. “The pandemic has taught us that technology that monitors, traces, and shares information is critical to saving lives,” adds Baroud. “This has been the commonality among cities that have successfully curtailed the pandemic’s reach. As we interact with infrastructure systems, our risks change over time. The constant is that information sharing is the largest contributing factor to keeping people safe. We also have seen how useful big data and predictive models can be to understand risk factors and where the largest likelihood of emergency incidence is, a technique that can help strategic and coordinated emergency response to future events beyond a pandemic.”

        In 2020, the pandemic clarified how important the right technology is in facilitating decisionmaking and the efficacy of emergency response in smart and resilient cities. “(This year,) we’ll see an expansion of IoT to the internet of behavior—IoB,” Baroud says. “Monitoring and predicting how people react to the trajectory of a disaster that their behavior dictates will be essential for resilient cities to incorporate into preemptive and reactive emergency response. This will open new questions about data security and privacy in storing and managing the data that cities will have to incorporate into their techniques.”


        Peggy and Walid Ali, artificial intelligence in manufacturing, Microsoft, talk about AI (artificial intelligence), sustainability, and more. He says we need to think about immediate opportunities that manufacturing has been exposed to and that we have to make the most out of explosive data streams.

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