The Covid-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in so many ways. Perhaps never before has a virus caused so much damage throughout the world in such a short time. Yet never before has technology been so helpful to people coping with a global crisis.
For example, streaming media and the internet delivered up-to-the-minute news — from health advisories to closings. Microsoft Teams and Slack kept businesses running and employees connected. And Zoom made it easy to host virtual events and teach from anywhere.
Yes, the pandemic has been the catalyst for tech adoption and will continue to drive innovation in the new normal. As we prepare for 2021, with an eye toward supporting consumers and employees, what technologies should business leaders be watching?
Here are my tech predictions for 2021.
Same-day delivery will become table stakes.
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Prompted by shelter-in-place and quarantine orders, same-day and contactless grocery delivery services have surged in popularity.
Instacart, as an example, was founded back in 2012 and announced nationwide expansions with a number of food store chains in 2018. At the start of the pandemic, however, the online grocery delivery service experienced a 218% increase in daily downloads. In March and April, Instacart hired an additional 300,000 workers to meet demand. The company also introduced innovative new services, including a same-day delivery offering with Walmart, among other contactless delivery options.
Online retail giant Amazon began to follow suit in 2017 with its Amazon Fresh same-day and next-day delivery service, and in 2020, it announced the first Amazon Fresh brick-and-mortar location. The stores stand apart from traditional retailers with technologies such as Amazon Dash Cart, designed to let in-store shoppers skip the checkout lane, and new Alexa features for voice-enabled shopping list management and store aisle navigation.
Moving forward, companies have to rethink their delivery service strategies to meet the demands of the “now economy” consumers. How can your local mom and pop grocery store flourish against this kind of competition? One option some smaller companies are turning to is “micro-fulfillment centers,” or mini warehouses, at the back of smaller grocery stores that use robots to prepare customer orders.
Videoconferencing will deliver ‘realistic’ experiences.
Given the many meetings businesses host on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that videoconferencing has skyrocketed in recent months with the work-from-home directives. For example, by April 2020, Zoom had reportedly surpassed 300 million users, while Google Meet had 100 million users, and Microsoft Teams had 75 million. This doesn’t include other services, such as GoToMeeting, BlueJeans and Cisco Webex.
I believe software as a service (SaaS) videoconferencing will see a dramatic shift, incorporating more technologies and filtering options to make the communication platforms deliver “in-person-like” experiences. We’ve already seen Zoom add options like lip color, eyebrow shape, mustaches and beards.
University researchers recently announced that by using artificial intelligence (AI) image-processing algorithms with thousands of face images and collage images from Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, they were able to identify the same individuals’ participation at different meetings. This was accomplished through facial recognition or by analyzing features in the background. And in April 2020, Google Meet announced the introduction of noise-canceling technology, which uses AI to identify and block ambient sounds that can make voices on a call tough to understand.
As we continue to work virtually in 2021, expect to see more cloud-based platforms hitting the market, with AI, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies to make the virtual experience more realistic. In fact, the global market for videoconferencing, which was $3.85 billion in 2019, is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) rate of 9.9% from 2020 to 2027. Before you invest in a new videoconferencing platform, I recommend looking for more advanced capabilities and security functionalities as well as new products that hit the market.
‘Tech for good’ will become the norm.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I found that many brands that pivoted to help people tackle the crisis increased their valuations. Technologies such as robotics and automation were needed to meet the supply chain and logistics demands.
For example, when urgent calls went out last spring for personal protective equipment (PPE), more than 400 Massachusetts-based companies collaborated with the state to pivot their operations to produce PPE for front-line workers. Dozens of engineers collaborated using SaaS product development technology Onshape (a client of mine) to design lifesaving products within weeks.
As we plan for the rebound, I expect many entrepreneurs to rethink their contribution to the global innovation economy. Instead of pivoting, companies may choose to commit to designing products that will positively impact society and help build a better tomorrow. And, now that engineers have proved they can be agile and develop products fast, I believe we’ll see more innovators leverage modern, cloud-based computer-aided design (CAD) platforms to collaborate and design products in real time, irrespective of their geographic locations.
Here’s the bottom line.
These predictions are based on what’s possible with emerging technology. Real-world success will hinge on people — specifically, the leadership provided to individuals and teams. We already know that by only emulating trends, a business can’t make much of a positive impact. In my opinion, it’s a combination of the right ideas, technology and talent that will propel individual companies and the economy forward as we continue to cope with the global crisis.