By Shane Zilinskas, founder of ClearSummit. Experienced, hands-on engineer building engaging products with his Los Angeles-based firm for businesses everywhere.

Last year was a series of phenomena that can’t be ignored. Covid-19, social distancing, political upheaval and climate change events would have been major news items on their own in any other year, but in 2021, they’re just one among a bunch. 

The same can be said for last year’s tech innovations. We’ve seen a surge in remote work and teleconferencing, the explosion of e-commerce, increased calls for privacy protection and increased demand for telehealth, as well as the subsequent advancement of the supply chain, infrastructure and consumer technology related to them. 

Many of the same issues we tackled last year will carry over to the next, but the way we approach them will be different thanks to what tech companies have already been able to build to date.

Internet Of Behavior

The Internet of Behavior (IoB) is the use of data and technology to change people’s behavior. Technology has been used to influence behavior for a very long time, but IoB solidified as a concept during the pandemic. Video monitors have been used to monitor mask-wearing. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and positional sensors are used to track social distancing compliance. Thermal sensors help monitor a person’s temperature in case someone is out in public while sick.

IoB has applications beyond managing the pandemic. Fitbit and Apple Health are already using IoB to improve people’s fitness by tracking behavior and prompting activity based on user-selected metrics. Insurance companies can monitor driver behavior and reduce (or eliminate) driving bad habits. In the case of national parks, IoB might even be used to prevent unauthorized campfires or smoking, thus reducing the risk of forest fires. 

2021 will see more widespread use of IoB in a pandemic-management context, but we will probably see other applications come into play as well. 

Carbon Neutrality

2020 wasn’t just a disaster for public health and safety — unseasonal and powerful storms, uncontrollable forest fires and melting polar ice are signals that Earth’s woes are only getting worse. Scientists are predicting dire consequences if nothing is done. 

Tech companies are stepping up even where governments are not. Microsoft is going carbon negative, which means that it is actively removing more carbon dioxide emissions than it produces. It’s a bold step for a company that produces hundreds of thousands of devices every year. 

It’s not just Microsoft making this effort toward positive climate change, either. Intel is working to restore marine habitats, and Intuit, maker of TurboTax and Quickbooks, has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030

This is a significant step for the industry, but that alone won’t be enough to move the needle. More companies can and should step up in 2021 to remove — or even reduce — carbon emissions and make more decisions that promote clean air and water for the planet. 

Fighting Toxic Behavior Online

From Twitter to Twitch to the comments section of the New York Times, the internet is full of people who misbehave and abuse and verbally assault others. Despite floods of complaints, the companies that run these platforms have rarely taken any action harsher than banning a few individuals and posting warning messages about content. 

Some of this can be blamed on the subscription model and on assessing a platform’s success based on active users. Disciplining large numbers of active users is bad for business because those users may abandon the service altogether after a negative interaction with moderators. 

More companies are taking a stand against toxicity in an effort to protect the larger user base. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are banding together to suppress online toxicity and make their platforms safer for younger players. After much public criticism, Twitter is also taking a stand and banning posts that dehumanize people in connection with diseases, as well as auditing the accounts of users who spread hate speech and misinformation, including Donald Trump.

Companies are looking to AI-driven solutions to manage toxicity and automatically censor offensive speech. We can expect this technology to continue to grow in 2021 and beyond.

Hyperautomation

Most organizations are a hybrid of analog and digital processes. While digital solutions increase efficiency, speed and productivity, there is always someplace where a process can be further improved.

Hyperautomation is the process of simplifying, digitizing and streamlining a process so that it can be handled automatically through a software-based solution. Machine learning handles the logic tree behind any process — if A, then B — while automation tools coordinate and combine as much of the tech stack as possible. The more repetitive or predictable a process is, the easier it will be to automate. 

The objective is the full digitization and automation of a legacy process. If the hyperautomation is successful, then the company can reallocate employees to more valuable positions. 

Normalizing Remote Work

By now, every company is running at least a partial work-from-home program. A recent study found that 80% of company leaders plan to continue remote work after the pandemic. While the majority of companies will likely return to working on-site when it’s safe to do so, management may be more open to alternative work arrangements for their employees in the future. 

This means that businesses need to expand their IT infrastructure so that they can support these work arrangements: more virtual machines, adjustments to the company firewall, more portable devices and a Zoom subscription or two.

Conclusion

2020 was full of surprises, and 2021 likely will be as well. By studying the trends from last year, we can glean some insight into this year’s likely hot topics and prepare accordingly.