Welcome to a New Year, bringing renewed optimism and an increased dose of empathy. We have all the ingredients to make 2021 the year of “the great reset,” where many lessons from our forced global “experiment” over this past year will provide the necessity, inspiration, and energy to re-invent the future. This will be a year where innovators have a remarkable opportunity to create a path forward that will make life better for everyone.

Next week over 150,000 people will gather for the annual CES expo, the New Year’s event for technology innovation. CES normally takes place in Las Vegas, but the 2021 edition will be fully virtual. Originally focused on consumer electronics (the C and E in CES), the event’s scope and scale have dramatically expanded over the last decade. Digital technology has blurred the lines between industries. You can now find car manufacturers, consumer goods companies, and even airlines showcasing their digitally driven innovations at CES.

We asked CES veteran Brian Cooley (Editor-at-large, CNET) to provide his perspective on the headlines that will come out of the annual event. One trend he highlights is that smart home technology will shift from away-from-home remote controls to at home convenience, social connectedness, and health. While many of us will return to our offices sometime this year, about 20% of work time will remain at home, compared to 5% before the pandemic. Many older people have learned how to use digital technologies at home to stay connected and take care of their health. The accelerated increase of e-commerce is closely related to this theme. New products like smart air fresheners will benefit from accelerated “smart home” consumer behavior established in part by Signal speaker Jamie Siminoff’s “smart doorbell” innovation.

Health technology and services will be another innovation trend to watch this year. While health diagnostics and telehealth services have been expanding steadily, they have now crossed the chasm from early adopters to mainstream use because of necessity. But the tools and services remain rudimentary, fragmented, with so-so user satisfaction. Expect new innovations to address these opportunities, and not just from startups. Apple, Google, and Amazon are all experimenting with health-related services and devices. When expanding health to healthy lifestyle it is easy to imagine companies like Peloton expanding their service offerings.

Environmental sustainability is a third area that will see accelerated innovation activity this year. Some will be driven by a renewed focus on climate change, thanks to a new US administration that will accelerate investment. But pragmatic sustainability innovation is already well under way in Europe, as was demonstrated at CES 2020 when Dutch water recycling startup Hydraloop won Engadget’s Best of the Best award. The 50-liter home platform, part of P&G’s CES 2021 presence, brings together a broad coalition of leading companies and public organizations to accelerate innovation that helps reduce everyday water use.

An optimistic view of what’s ahead this year is a good starting point. But we need to balance it with a solid dose of realism. Many of the “next big thing” technologies are not always so big after all — see our overview of CES flops over the years. And as McKinsey points out in a recent report, the arrival of an effective Covid vaccine has increased the certainty that we will see the end of the pandemic in Q3-Q4 of this year. But it will be an uneven transition period. Some people will find a way to recreate their pre-pandemic lifestyle while many others will have to rebuild their lives. The biggest risk we run is a further increase in inequality, especially among people who were already disadvantaged. Unfortunately, digital technology innovation has contributed to increased inequality because it provides advantages to scale. It is one of the reasons that Big Tech is facing increased scrutiny from governments across the globe. 

Reading through several 2021 predictions (including John Battelle’s own predictions) we are in for a wildcard year with great challenges and opportunities. The most critical uncertainty for 2021 will be how people will behave and adapt. We need to include a strong dose of empathy and social perspective in any digital innovation efforts to make life a little bit better for everyone. No matter how it unfolds, in the year ahead we look forward to showcasing how innovation can be a force for growth and a force for good.

Stan Joosten & John Battelle,

Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G