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What technology changes will 2021 bring? Here's what business leaders say

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People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak stand near a robot at the venue for the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China July 9, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song - RC2EPH9URISA

Technology adoption and development raises ethical questions – about genetics, robots, algorithms – and what it means to be human. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

A new World Economic Forum-Ipsos survey finds that most adults are uniquely optimistic about accessing technology, digital tools and training in the next 12 months. This is amid general pessimism about other aspects of life, such as health, employment and climate change.

There has been a palpable mindset shift when it comes to technology. Throughout the pandemic, technology has been a lifeline to survival – both personal and for businesses – and it is now seen to hold the key to recovery. But the pace of technology adoption and development, with its accompanying life-changing possibilities, has been disruptive, raising a range of ethical questions – about genetics, robots, algorithms – and what it means to be human.

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When it comes to technological innovation, business leaders are bullish – seeing technology and digitization as a means to succeed. But they recognize the challenges of AI ethics, inequalities of access, security and governance gaps.

Expected change in 2021 Image: World Economic Forum-Ipsos

The Davos Agenda is mobilizing global leaders to work together virtually to achieve a more inclusive, cohesive and sustainable future as soon as possible. An entire week of global programming is dedicated to helping leaders choose innovative and bold solutions to stem the pandemic and drive a robust recovery over the next year – with Day 4 (28 January) focused on how we can harness the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for good.

How governments and other stakeholders approach technological change will play an important role in “resetting” society, the economy and the business environment. Working together, the public and private sectors have the opportunity to nurture the development of new technologies while mitigating the risks of unethical or malicious uses.

Ahead of the meeting, we invited World Economic Forum Strategic Partners to share their ideas on the narrative about the Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2021.

‘We need to put the community at the centre’

JJ Davis, Senior Vice-President, Corporate Affairs, Dell Technologies

Palestinian student Shaima Bisharat uses a smartphone as she attends an online school lesson, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in a Bedouin encampment in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 12, 2021. Picture taken  January 12, 2021. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta - RC2AAL9LFWOG
New hybrid working and learning environments Image: REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

In 2021, I expect we’ll see investments in emerging technologies like next generation 5G wireless communications technology narrow the digital divide. But extending digital access will also require us to drive beyond digital literacy skills - adapting education, skilling and workforce development to match the emerging and future in-demand skills accelerated by the pandemic.

We’ll also see collaborative tools leveraging AI and cloud support new hybrid working and learning environments. And healthcare technology will continue to help us predict, detect and mediate global health challenges. We need to put the community at the centre, with governments, non-profit organizations, public and the private sectors working together to shape a world that is more connected, empathetic and resilient.

‘Improve business models, and ultimately people’s lives’

Khalid Humaidan, Chief Executive Officer, Bahrain Economic Development Board

The world’s journey to digitalization was catalysed in 2020 by COVID-19. For many countries, digital transformation journeys were already underway, and these infrastructures turned out to be vital in order to facilitate technological necessities to limit the spread of the virus, including track and trace apps and nationwide working from home policies.

In Bahrain, the uptick in tech adoption was able to happen more or less overnight because of the agile, pro-innovation agenda we incorporated into our economic diversification efforts years ago. The foundations that were developed upon in 2020 will have a significant role to play as we build back better in the year ahead.

The power of technology has well and truly been recognized by businesses and customers alike, and the potential for technology to continue to improve business models, and ultimately people’s lives, offers up exciting prospects for 2021.

‘The opportunity can be a large part of the solution to the challenge’

Sabine Keller-Busse, Group Chief Operating Officer; President, Europe, Middle East and Africa, UBS

Once we have overcome the pandemic, climate change will continue to be one of the greatest challenges of our time. Rapidly evolving technology is one of our greatest opportunities. Luckily, the opportunity can be a large part of the solution to the challenge.

Technology will allow us to gather and assess data on a larger and more accurate scale so that governments, corporations and investors can make informed decisions.

At UBS, the positive impacts of technology are already evident in our goal to be a sustainable company. We’ve developed a climate-aware framework to reduce portfolios' carbon footprints. Intelligent heating and waste recycling have helped us reduce emissions. And when it comes to the way we work, the pandemic accelerated trends powered by innovative and effective technology applications and solutions such as virtual workspaces and more robust communication systems, resulting in positive environmental impact – an experience that can serve as a blueprint for future sustainable work setups.

There is really only one option for the future given we will not (cannot) accept a lower standard of living now and carry on as before. We must leverage new technologies to live and work more efficiently.

‘An AI enabled quantum leap’

Brian Peccarelli, Chief Operating Officer, Customer Markets, Thomson Reuters

The pandemic has forced the digital transformation of the professional services industry. It is so much more than allows individuals to work remotely. It is about an AI enabled quantum leap that enables professionals to focus on adding high-end value to their clients versus mundane research or the routine administrative elements of their work. The future is a world with interoperable technology that allows professionals to concentrate their efforts on their clients, growth and positive change.

‘Commitment to advancing the common good’

Punit Renjen, Global Chief Executive Officer, Deloitte

The accelerated pace of digital transformation has been critical to business resilience as we navigated the unchartered waters of the pandemic. The rapid adoption and increased use of video, AI, cloud and automation among others has helped many organizations minimize and effectively manage the disruption caused by the pandemic. It has, perhaps permanently, changed many aspects of how we live, work and connect with each other.

But, it has also exposed inequities and raised questions about the ethical implications of using technology in new and more ubiquitous ways. As we look to create a better, more sustainable, more equitable world in the future, organizations must harness these technologies with a commitment to advancing the common good.

These technologies have enormous potential to help create a better normal for more of society’s stakeholders. With an eye towards creating a positive impact, organizations can build trust with their stakeholders, better prepare for future disruptions and accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.


‘Urgent need to invest in capability building’

Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner, and Shubham Singhal, Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company

The (AI and digitization) evolution has not always been a seamless or elegant process: businesses had to scramble to install or adapt new technologies under intense pressure. The result has been that some systems are clunky. The near-term challenge, then, is to move from reacting to the crisis to building and institutionalizing what has been done well so far. For consumer industries, and particularly for retail, that could mean improving digital and omnichannel business models. For healthcare, it’s about establishing virtual options as a norm. For insurance, it’s about personalizing the customer experience. And for semiconductors, it’s about identifying and investing in next-generation products. For everyone, there will be new opportunities in M&A and an urgent need to invest in capability building.

Executives report moving 20 to 25 times faster on using advanced technologies in operations. Image: McKinsey & Company

The COVID-19 crisis has created an imperative for companies to reconfigure their operations—and an opportunity to transform them. To the extent that they do so, greater productivity will follow.

‘All companies will become technology companies’

Dr. Zhou Bowen, Chair, JD Technology Committee; Vice-President,

Parcels are seen on automated sorting belt at's smart logistics center on Singles Day shopping festival, in Beijing, China November 11, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang - RC221K9PB6SH
Automated sorting belt at's smart logistics centre. Image: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

If asked to use one word to describe this past year of 2020, I think “uncertainty” would be the top choice for many people, and we all wish to find the certainty within these uncertainties. That’s not always possible, but there are two things that we can be certain about the future: first, technology will continue to progress and evolve; second, companies wish to maintain sustainable growth.

Combining these two certainties together, I would say by 2030, all companies worldwide will become “technology” companies. Whether they create new business models or develop by leveraging their industrial ecosystem, they will all need the blessing of technology to thrive. Therefore, the digital and intelligent transformation of industries represented by cloud computing, AI, big data, Internet of Things and others will be the biggest opportunity in the next 10 years, and the year 2021 will be a critical starting point for industries to prepare and actively embrace this transformation.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalFourth Industrial Revolution
‘We need to put the community at the centre’‘Improve business models, and ultimately people’s lives’‘The opportunity can be a large part of the solution to the challenge’‘An AI enabled quantum leap’‘Commitment to advancing the common good’‘Urgent need to invest in capability building’‘All companies will become technology companies’

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