The Year in 2021

Key findings from Surviving's 'Future Trends' report

The Surviving think tank has published its future trends (and predictions) report for 2021. Here is a summary of the key findings.

This year has been extraordinary. At times it felt like we were in a surreal dream. One we wished we could wake up from.

2020 will prove to be the toughest year in decades. Next year will be a little better. The worse is behind us and recovery can begin.

But climate change continues to loom over us. Until we part the climate clouds, risk remains.

We have identified 10 key trends for 2021:

  1. Covid-19 will dictate events

  2. The economic downturn will be brutal

  3. Digital takes over

  4. The environmental movement takes off

  5. Mass poverty is everywhere

  6. Inequality drives politics

  7. It’s Joe Biden's America

  8. AI and big data are the new disruptors

  9. Brexit challenges the UK

  10. Asia recovers faster

1. Covid-19 will dictate events

The Coronavirus pandemic will continue to dictate events next year. When we try to set a wider agenda and move on from the pandemic, it will remind us that it is in charge and drag us back with its surges and restrictions.

China and a number of other Asian countries will keep a lid on Covid but the US, Latin America, Canada, Europe, the UK, India, the Middle East and parts of Africa will continue to suffer through 2021.

Vaccines will be rolled out in all countries but progress will be slower than expected. Leaders will underestimate how long it will take to vaccinate the two thirds of the population necessary to gain control of the virus. They will be disappointed by the number of people who refuse to take the vaccine. We will have to wait until the end of 2021 for the first nations to have vaccinated enough people.

The virus will mutate and new strains will challenge the original vaccines and drive fear into scientists and citizens. But vaccines will adapt and by the end of 2021 the worse should largely be behind us.

2. The economic downturn will be brutal

Recession and unemployment will continue for much of 2021, particularly as Coronavirus support packages taper off. We will be looking at tens of millions more people added to the roster of unemployed. The economic downturn, like the virus, will continue to spread.

2021, perhaps even more than 2020, will be a year of have’s and have not’s. Between those that manage to get the vaccine and those that cannot. Between those companies and sectors that continue to thrive and those that do not. Between those who continue to have job security and those that do not. For those that risk their health by working in front line jobs and living in cramped conditions. Between those that cannot find full time jobs. For the jobs that disappear for ever thanks to automation.

Poor countries will have to push harder than ever to gain recognition and support from the richer countries. They will experience more devastation than normal with vaccines coming later than hoped and the ravages of climate change, disease and warfare continuing.

The countries that come out best will be the ones that beat the virus early, such as China and South Korea, and those that boost their economies with large scale spending on a green recovery, technology, healthcare and infrastructure, while keeping a lid on taxation. Asia will lead the recovery while less developed countries lag.

3. Digital takes over

We entered the pandemic as a world still dominated by the physical world. Brick and mortar stores, workplaces and schools. We will exit the pandemic as a digital society.

The future of work will be remote working. We have already crossed the chasm. Retailing, travel, hospitality and leisure will be increasingly driven by digital. Cinemas will not fully recover. Shopping malls and high streets will change. Digital media is media.

Every business will have a digital first strategy and automation will be key. Organisations will make technology their competitive weapon. Data it's most vital asset. Companies and countries that do not lead on digital will get left behind.

In 2021 most meetings will be on Zoom. Most social interactions on Instagram, WhatsApp and TikTok. Movies will be watched on YouTube and Netflix and eat out dinners will be enjoyed at home. Healthcare-at-home, 3D printers and DIY cooking, schooling and home improvement will rule. The living room will continue to be the centre of our universe.

Smart phones and tablets will get even better at taking photos and video while apps will be dominated by a small few that are the most popular. Entertainment will be home entertainment. Going forwards digital is our default environment - the physical world outside our family and home is a place we regularly visit.

4. The environmental movement takes off

In November 2021 world leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 summit. This will force them to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It will act as the catalyst for countries to finally get serious about reducing emissions and global warming.

During 2021 most countries will put in place plans to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050 (keeping warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels). The key will be those countries that publish specific plans for this decade and provide legislation and laws to enshrine it.

Dominant themes will include renewable energy, home insulation, smart meters, electric vehicles and charging stations, waste, diet and nature restoration.

Joe Biden will see climate change as a platform for America to lead the world and deliver a more constructive diplomatic agenda. This will spark a healthy arms race for climate action and climate solutions. Europe, the Middle East, Russia and China will not want to get left behind.


5. Mass poverty is everywhere

The darkest side to the pandemic will be its long lasting effects on poverty. In 2021 we will increasingly recognise that mass poverty is everywhere. Advanced countries will have to wake up to the fact that tens of millions of their citizens, including children and the elderly, will be sitting below the poverty line. Queues for food banks will be the new political battle lines. Young workers will struggle to find jobs.

Poverty and starvation in poorer countries will get worse. Warfare, climate change and the collapse of agricultural systems will lead to new waves of mass migration. South Americans will flood north thanks to a more welcoming US president. Europe will continue to experience immigration from Africa and the Middle East. Hong Kong’s citizens will head to Britain to escape Chinese rule.

As unemployment grows and low income work gets automated the conversation about systemic mass poverty will develop. The centre left parties will use this as a rallying call to attack right wing parties. They will blame post pandemic austerity measures and policies that unfairly support the rich and large corporations. The universal basic income will emerge as a possible solution.

6. Inequality drives politics

The curse of this millennium is inequality. It seems as though it is everywhere. Long the preserve of tyrannical, authoritarian nations, this extreme level of inequality which allows rich dictators to keep the masses poor and powerless has found its way into advanced economies. Over the last few years inequality has spread across borders, religion, race and sex.

Uprisings have been growing in the West. It has been more subdued in other parts. Even the ten year anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising was a relatively low key affair. But, there is a simmering lack of acceptance for the status quo. This has empowered dictators and challenged democracy. It bred Trump and Brexit. It has reignited the populist playbook and subverted the will of the people with a twenty first century coercion and rule of law.

The pandemic put a check on this. But 2021 will see much less acceptance of inequality in the western world. As unemployment and poverty increases expect more student protests and racial inequality marches. The ultra rich will be blamed for increasing their wealth while polluting the planet and companies that do not support diversity and opportunity for more will be challenged.

The younger generations will channel their frustration by calling out ineffective governments and polluting companies. They will get behind the green revolution and persuade their parents and grand parents to join them. They are less likely to vote for the status quo. But politics will be more divided than ever. Only great leaders and highly effective campaigns will be able to unite the forces. The person in charge of the country may prove more important than ever. Voters in western democracies will remain engaged.

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7. It’s Joe Biden's America

Joe Biden becomes the 46th US President on the 20th of January. Given his experience we can expect him to get up and running quickly. He takes over a divided country that, perhaps for the very first time, has questioned it's version of democracy. He has already named a large number of his leadership teams and his cabinet. Now he will need to get them approved - an early test of his ability to manage a less divisive form of politics.

Biden will need to rebuild confidence in American democracy while he rebuilds a shattered country. Coronavirus has taken a huge toll. In 2021 we can expect him to get hold of the pandemic with face mask mandates, closer cooperation with the scientists and a hands on focus on the vaccine rollout. Getting vaccines into people's arms will be a military style operation. As important as waging a war.

Biden will try to get a broad stimulus package approved and will label it a green new deal. He will be dependent on senate numbers following the runoff race in Georgia. Expect Biden to go hard on supporting working class people, tackling unemployment and poverty while driving environmental solutions and systemic racism. He will instantly gain traction abroad as America’s democratic allies rally around him.

Biden will be clear about where Obama and he fell short and so we can expect him to work hard to deliver enough real change and improvement for everyday Americans - to ensure he does not create the conditions for another Trump (or Trump himself) to return. His biggest juggle will be slaying the memory of Donald Trump while attempting to unite the country.

As always, where America goes, the rest of the world follows. We know that America is about to head off in a very different direction. Let's hope it proves a more productive and inclusive journey. At least Biden's off to a quick start.

8. AI and big data are the new disruptors

The next major set of technologies to reach maturity and crash into our lives will be artificial intelligence and big data. Both are byproducts of the digital revolution. Both will change our world.

Big data is already out there - in 2021 it will become more powerful and more pervasive. Government agencies use it to track storms and diseases. They will increasingly use it to track our behaviors and poll our opinions in real time and at scale. With billion of users, devices and sensors recording endless amounts of information from around the world and served in real time, the promise of big data has become reality. Big business will use it to create new products and marketing campaigns while better predicting consumer behaviour. Startups will use it to develop new data-driven products and services.

Big data, like artificial intelligence is controversial. Used for the good both of them can help us fight wars, extreme storms, pandemics and disease. They can help us find cures faster, predicting new permutations and spread. Artificial intelligence powers artificial limbs and helps people see and hear better. But these new breakthrough technologies can also create a highly advanced surveillance society and increasingly replace human activity and work with machines.

Both technologies are so powerful that we will need to legislate for stricter privacy laws while enacting policies and economic approaches to ensure that increased automation does not leave too many humans behind. Advanced research in robotics and big data will provide economic advantages to advanced nations and provide them with new military powers.

9. Brexit challenges the UK

The last four years of Brexit has been the easy part. In January 2021 British citizens will wake up to the reality. Up to now it has been a reasonably abstract concept that a large number of people and businesses have not yet fully understood. It has been a movement fueled by emotion and the desire to rediscover British sovereignty and freedom.

Brexit was largely a reaction to severe inequality and growing poverty in the UK fuelled by a slick campaign that made the EU and its open borders out to be the villain. The central selling point was to get Britain's borders back so as to bring home better paying jobs. Thanks to the pandemic and the economic downturn, this promise might be hard to deliver.

2021 will offer a cold dose of reality for the British people. Initially they are likely to see more constraints than freedoms as travel across the EU gets harder. Businesses will face more bureaucracy and hurdles trading with Europe and it will be harder to find work abroad. New trade deals with other countries will take a while and prove to be difficult to come by. It will be hard not to notice that the UK economy will be faring worse then many other leading nations.

As a growing number of foreign companies move their European operations to other countries, questions will be asked. If Scotland leaves the UK in search of a brighter European future, the Brexit reality might look somewhat bleak. The UK prime minister could have an increasingly difficult job keeping the British public on board.

The EU will face numerous post mortems in the court of public opinion about why the UK left. It may split Europe more than unite it. It should push the EU to deliver more concrete value for its people and their struggling economies.

The EU might end up developing a political system that is more proportional and federalist. After all it is still too much the preserve of France and Germany. If this had not been the case it might not have paid the heavy price of the UK seceding. Some will argue that the EU only had itself to blame. The British people might end up paying the highest price. Its not every day you get to turn your back on the world's largest trading block.

10. Asia recovers faster

The current global downturn could be one of the first whereby Asia recovers ahead of the western world. Normally global recessions start in the US and gradually work their way around the world. If the US sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold. This time it was China that sneezed first. Other parts of Asia caught the cold early and they they dealt with it quite effectively. Much of Asia is already recovering - both from the pandemic and from the economic downturn.

In 2021 the Western world will continue to struggle with the pandemic and the recession while Asia rebounds. It will feel like two different universes as things in the east almost return to normal. This time the US and Europe will lag.

It will act as a stark reminder that the world order has changed and China and the east are on the rise. The west has somewhat plateaued. Expect China to take full advantage as it expands its economic interests around the world. India and Russia will follow. In turn, the western world will work to forge alliances and protect their interests. The partnership between the US, Europe and the western leaning countries in Asia will be key.

We thought 2020 was hectic. 2021 will be no less. Hopefully it will be a little more upbeat. This will only bear itself out if we learn to adapt to the new world. Multiple superpowers are circling and greater equality at the national level will need to trickle down to the rest of us so we have the strength and stamina to address the new set of challenges and opportunities. After all, there are enough of them.

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