2021+ 9 themes for next year and beyond


The end of each year is always a good time to distil predictions for what is coming. 2020 has been an absolutely pivotal year, it is a critical time for us to actively make sense of our path forward.

In the slides below I have laid out 9 themes that I believe will be at the center of our world in 2021 and beyond.

2020 has pivoted us into a new era

The crucible of 2020 has transformed us, not into a “post-pandemic” future, but one which has accelerated and amplified many existing trends of the pre-2020 world, flipping us into a new era for humanity which we will forever see as forged by the intense fire of 2020.

Pandemic Pulse

Nations will cycle between opening and closing to combat contagion

The announcement of multiple COVID-19 vaccines has given hope to populations besieged by the virus, but coronavirus is highly unlikely to be fully vanquished for the foreseeable future, with delays in rollouts, many vaccine sceptics, and stiff containment measures in response to even limited outbreaks leading to an irregular rhythm in and out of lockdowns and optimism in cities and nations around the world.

Moreover, worrying new viruses have arisen regularly over the last decades and will continue to do so, even once COVID-19 is largely contained. The difference is our belated realization that any new pathogen could trigger another global pandemic, sparking drastic measures for any concerning new viruses.

One major and positive shift is that, after years of dire and prescient warnings from epidemiologists, we are far more prepared for the health crises that will inevitably happen in our intensely connected world.

“Although it is impossible to predict when the next pandemic might occur, its occurrence is considered inevitable.”
– Global Influenza Strategy 2019-2030, World Health Organisation

42% of Americans and 13% of Australians say they will NOT get a COVID-19 vaccine.
– Gallup, October 2020; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, November 2020

Being Well

The challenges of this year have intensified our focus on mental and physical wellbeing

The mental toll of this year impacted far more people than coronavirus itself, with the elderly, single, disadvantaged, and newly unemployed often struggling to deal with the isolation of lockdown and intense economic challenges.

The result is an increasing focus on wellness by nations, employers, communities, families, and individuals. Empathy has grown as many have experienced difficulties and grasped how hard it must be for many others. Health systems will be deeply strained, but we will help each other more.

The shift to healthier eating is moving apace, exemplified by the long-standing shift to vegan eating. Our shifting diet is being driven by increased awareness of the environmental costs of meat as well as the availability of far tastier plant-based foods, thanks in part to $3 billion venture capital investment this year into improved meat alternatives.

U.S. plant-based sales are growing 14 times faster than total food sales.
– Good Food Institute, September 2020

41% of Americans reported an adverse health mental condition related to COVID-19
– Center for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2020

Efficiency to Resilience

We will prioritize independence, local production, and community

While COVID-19 has accelerated many existing trends, it has turned around the longstanding drive to hyper-efficiency, which assumed that goods could be transported whenever needed. When borders can be closed in an instant, the equation entirely changes, with resilience to shocks the highest priority.

Specialist manufacturing is returning onshore, local 3D printing and assembly is rising, the demand for quality local food production is soaring, and nations are focusing on food and energy independence.

Inevitably major new crises will emerge in coming years, from climate, disease, terrorism, or conflict. Our collective resilience will depend deeply on our sense of community, with those regions prioritizing local-first economies, community health and aged care, and civic innovation initiatives far better positioned to respond to adversity.

69% of U.S. manufacturing and industrial companies “are likely to bring manufacturing production and sourcing back to North America”.
– Thomas, August 2020

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 32% of Americans gave directly and 48% gave indirectly by supporting local community.
– Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University

Work Reconfigured

Hybrid working models will boost the economy of individuals

After the enforced shift to remote work in 2020, few organizations will ever resume work as we knew it, with most gradually adopting ‘hybrid’ models in which staff come to the office when useful but frequently work from home or local ‘third spaces’ that allow social connections and a change of scenery. Those companies that provide greater flexibility and better remote conditions will attract the most talented and strongly outperform.

Organizations and individuals are learning how to excel at virtual work, including enabling serendipitous connections with colleagues, balancing work and home lives, ensuring worker privacy, and using an array new technologies including 5G and virtual reality to transcend location.

The shift to flexible work is contributing to the rise of the ‘economy of individuals’, in which not only classic gig workers such as drivers but also high-end professionals shift from full-time employment to independent work, allowing them to relocate at choice. Workers with traditional full-time jobs will become a minority.

87% of office workers want the ability to choose whether to work from home or office, and manage their hours, even when offices open up.
– Cisco Workforce of the Future Survey, September 2020

In December 2020 Greece established a digital nomad visa that seeks to attract remote workers by halving their income tax.

Vectors of Travel

International flight paths and confidence will resume one step at a time

International travel has defined our age, with 4.5 billion people flying in 2019, almost triple the number in 2000. In 2020 the travel lust of many executives, families, and adventurers has been thwarted, leading to massive pent-up demand to fly abroad. Yet it will be a slow and bumpy road back.

Initially travel bubbles between nations or regions will open up (and then sometimes close down again), often vetted by health passports, pre-boarding checks, and digital vaccination records. The travel industry will reshape, with airlines merging, prices adjusting to ensure profitability, and new premium services for luxury tourists and business travelers.

Travel will go beyond our planet, with space tourism commencing for the wealthy, and the space ventures of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos intent on building massive industries beyond Earth including resource mining, moon bases, colonizing Mars, and as a by-product potentially enabling hypersonic travel, reducing the flight time between Sydney and New York to 4 hours.

International travel revenue in 2020 will be $191 billion, less than a third of revenue in 2019, with the airline industry losing $118 billion this year.
– International Air Transport Association

In 2020 three missions to Mars were launched: NASA’s Mars 2020, China National Space Administration’s Tianwen-1, and UAE’s Emirates Mars Mission, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to send a Starship to Mars in 2024.

Transcending Polarization

We will strive to reverse heightened schisms in economies, societies, and politics

The escalating polarization of values, society, politics, and wealth over the last decade has been evident, with the network effects of our connected world contributing to both economic and social divisions. Across nations, both low-paid and high-paid jobs have grown, with the middle eviscerated, leaving an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots.

Social media has ended up dividing us more than bringing us together, leading to the mainstreaming of extremism in places. Most still believe in the principle of democracy but many disagree with how it is put into practice. There is an immense opportunity to evolve our democratic structures for a new era, starting by being open to debate and change.

The coming years will be defined largely by how successfully we can transcend these acute divisions. The pandemic swiftly reframed the discussion around “post-capitalism”, with many saying they support every citizen receiving a basic income. Business leaders will be increasingly vocal in espousing the importance of social impact as well as financial returns.

45% of Americans would support a Universal Basic Income, including 69% of those under 30.
– Pew Research Center

Globally, High Net Worth Individuals plan to allocate 46% of their portfolio to sustainable investing by 2021.
– CapGemini World Wealth Report 2020

Energy Flip

The inexorable shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy will accelerate

The pandemic grabbed attention away from climate change but it is shifting back, with 2020 one of the three hottest years on record, all in the last five years, extreme temperatures in the Arctic and Siberia, spiralling wildfires around the world, and unprecedented hurricane intensity.

Governments leaders globally are shifting from rhetoric to action on carbon reductions, including pressure on their peers. With energy production accounting for 72% of emissions, there is heightened impetus to move away from fossil fuels. However the market is already ahead, given that the cost of energy production from new renewable projects is far below that for traditional energy sources.

For the last 20 years every forecast of the pace of the shift to renewable energy has been too conservative. The balance has tipped and we are swiftly moving to a renewable-first energy economy in which many households produce as well as consume energy.

Renewable energy accounts for almost 90% of the increase in total power capacity globally in 2020.
– International Energy Agency

Global sales of electric vehicles in October 2020 were 127% higher than a year before, with one in 20 cars sold worldwide now renewable.
– InsideEVs

Human Machine Symbiosis

We will design work and education so AI and people create value together

There continues to be remarkable progress in artificial intelligence, with recent landmarks including Google’s DeepMind solving protein folding with potentially massive implications for drug discovery and healthcare, and OpenAI’s GPT-3 able to write convincing and sometimes compelling articles.

The extraordinary and rising capabilities of AI threaten intense disruption to human work. However the next years will be framed by leading companies recognizing the unique human capabilities of expertise, creativity, relationships, and ethics, and designing work so that AI and humans are a system, tapping each’s distinctive competences to create something greater than each can achieve on their own.

Education will be at the heart of the future for us all, and provides an incredible opportunity for human-machine collaboration. Personalized lessons tailored to individual learning styles, interests, hobbies, and social environment will help everyone learn in the way best suited to them. Yet demand for talented teachers will soar to frame, engage, inspire, and connect, working with AI to make children and adults alike ready for tomorrow.

“By 2025, 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.”
– Future of Jobs Report 2020, World Economic Forum

“AI should benefit people and the planet by driving inclusive growth, sustainable development and well-being.”
– OECD AI Principles, adopted by 42 countries

Accelerated Evolution

Humans will evolve faster than at any time in human history

Gene editing and biohacking now allow us to alter the DNA, not just of human embryos, but also of grown adults. The first applications are of course in helping those with genetic disorders, but it is inevitable that parents will seek to improve the intelligence, beauty, and athleticism of their children.

It is not just volitional control of our genes that is shaping us, but also our environment. Famous visionary Marshall McLuhan presciently noted that “we shape our tools, then our tools shape us”. Neuroplasticity means our brains literally change depending on their environment, with pervasive digital screens molding our mental processes, and researchers observing ‘cognitive offloading’ of our thinking processes to technology.

Humankind’s eternal desire for immortality may never be achieved, but recent advances in multiple domains suggest that cancer treatments are within reach, and we may not just stop but reverse the ageing process, raising pointed issues about who gets access to these technologies.

19% of Americans want to live forever, while an additional 42% want to live longer than normal but not forever.
– YouGov

UK scientists edited the genes of a human embryo in 2017. A recent UK law allows babies to incorporate the DNA from three parents.