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December 22, 2021updated 10 Jan 2022 12:19pm

It ain’t all about AI: Looking at the biggest tech themes of 2021

While AI loomed large, there were plenty of other top tech themes in 2021 keeping CEOs up at night.

The past year was about more than just artificial intelligence (AI). While the technology loomed large in headlines across Verdict and other business tech news sites, there were plenty of other technology themes keeping CEOs up at night in 2021.

That said, it would be remiss not to mention the disruption of AI across a multitude of sectors the last year. With the use of thematic research from analytics firm GlobalData, Verdict explored the impact of AI in robotics through companies such as ABB and Covariant, along with its influence in education and edtech, the defence realm, insurance, retail and FMCG, banking and finance, foodservice and food delivery and the sector of Big Oil.

Healthcare also saw significant disruptive activity from AI, with the tech theme driving everything from chatbots and care robots, to surgical tech.

The market for AI can be difficult to size, as the technology is often embedded into larger systems. That said, GlobalData forecasts suggest that the market for AI platforms will reach $52bn in 2024, up from $29bn in 2019.

COP26 and ESG

Usk Valley, Wales (Photo by: Peter Adams/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

 

GlobalData believes that ESG will be the most important theme impacting businesses over the next decade, surpassing even AI. This includes action to tackle climate change and measures to make businesses better run and more socially sustainable.

The COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland this autumn made ESG a talking point once again, even if its achievements were something of a damp squib. During COP26 season, Verdict explored sustainability in tourism and travel, and investigated the reality that the industry may be pivoting to more well-off travellers in order to curb overtourism.

We also took a look at sustainability in healthcare, profiling, among other things, a forest planted by NHS workers earlier this year in the Welsh countryside.

GlobalData believes that once the pandemic is under control, sustainability will be the theme giving business leaders the most restless nights this decade.

“Every company must recognize that the science is clear, and the need for climate action will only increase,” researchers argue. “It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ moment that calls for an ‘all of the above’ approach – regulation, voluntary action, technology innovation, and self-interested action by companies seeking competitive advantage as they balance near-term and long-term business strategies.

“Inaction is not an option.”

Virtual reality and the metaverse

Rachel Franklin, head of social VR for Facebook Inc., speaks during the F8 Developers Conference (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 

NFTs may have been discussed a lot in 2021, but the metaverse became just as hyped in even less time as the year came to a close.

The metaverse is a virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real-time within simulated scenarios, made possible by virtual reality (VR). We explored Facebook’s role in the tech theme prior to rebranding itself as Meta, and how metaverse security will become paramount with the rise of the technology.

Verdict also examined how augmented reality (AR) and VR headsets are being used in healthcare around the world. We also profiled the use of digital twins in business information modelling, looking at the virtual version of London’s forthcoming Queen Elizabeth line. The tech is also being used to keep gas and oil alive.

“Digital twins can apply to any system: a car, a home, a factory, a power grid, a telecom network, or a city,” GlobalData analysts note. “The value of digital twins is increasing as they move from being the single digital model of an asset to become an underpinning element of organisations’ digital transformation initiatives.”

Top tech themes of 2021: The Future of Work

Credit: Shutterstock

 

Doctors are conducting more medical appointments over video, meanwhile, and teachers are educating more children online. But there’s more to the future of work than Zoom video calls.

The future of work, GlobalData argues, will be shaped by 5G technologies and the new capabilities they bring to collaboration, visualisation, automation and connectivity.

Industrial work will likely be changed by robotic automation, especially in the face of declining birth rates. Using statistical data from the World Bank, one can see all the top 20 countries for robotics have a fertility rate below 2.1, the baseline needed to ensure a broadly stable population.

As the above data shows, birth rates are low for the twenty leaders with an average fertility rate of 1.4. A recent robotics report by GlobalData suggests that robotics can help address future shortages in the workforce, which is likely to come with ageing populations.

 

2021: Top tech themes in China, Japan and APAC

Credit: Shutterstock

 

While deal activity in 2020 remained muted across most regions, Asia-Pacific (APAC) was the only region that managed to witness growth in deal value as well as volume. China in particular led the way on this front and, as Verdict reported this summer, accordingly led M&A deal activity during the first two quarters of 2020 when the pandemic and related uncertainty was gaining strong momentum.

China also led the way for electric vehicles (EVs) in 2021, along with short video ecommerce, AI models and AI-powered surveillance.

That other giant of Asia, Japan, also had an interesting year with its delayed Tokyo Olympics finally taking place in the summer. But as we argued, the big event was a case of too little, too late for the official inauguration of 5G in both APAC and the world as a whole.

We also took a look at Japan's use of walking couriers in Tokyo, in an experiment which may pave a new path for gig workers worldwide.

Finally, in a big year for NFTs and cryptocurrency, it is still Asia, particularly Singapore, which leads the way for blockchain startups in finance and smart city models. Whether smart cities will remain one of the top tech themes after 2021 is uncertain, especially in light of the latest news that Alphabet is winding down its smart city operation, Sidewalk Labs.

But it's likely China and Asia will keep augmenting their cities and building cutting-edge urban enclaves, full of EVs, 5G and self-sovereign identities on the blockchain. Japan is already underway with this through its Woven City project, matching the country's ambition to upgrade to what it calls "Society 5.0".

China’s smart city model meanwhile is making for an attractive export to other countries, backed by a “highly exportable” package of “enabling technologies no other nation or company can match (including) optical fibers, 5G networking, AI-enabled cameras, voice recognition, smart sensors, big data, drones (and) satellites,” as GlobalData notes.

In other words, keep an eye on Asia for tech themes in 2022.

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