Looking to 2021: One Trend to Rule Them All

technology trends

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

October 22, 2020

Halloween and Christmas have been growing together for some time. We’ve had Halloween trees and lights for years. Still, it surprised me a bit to see so many predictions for 2021 coming out in the computer trade press. Perhaps it’s because so many people want to see beyond COVID, or maybe it’s because many of us are treating November 3 like New Year’s Eve.

Like Costco, however, master predictor Gartner has been making its predictions for next year around Halloween for some time. Its top strategic trends for 2021 came out this week. It builds, to some extent, on its Hype Cycle analysis of emerging technologies that came out in August.

My reaction to all the trends predictions coming out now is a bit like this cartoon. I call it “flattening the curve.”

godzilla cartoon



The Godzilla about to stomp our expectations is sheer uncertainty. The one big trend today is that we don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID, or the economy, or even the government, for sure, next year.

This doesn’t bother professional predictors that much. You can always write a book called “Thriving on Chaos,” or something. One can even argue that uncertainty drives a desire for predictions. Certainly, it seems to be contributing to the success of conspiracy theories.

Gartner appears to know that this is a tough time for strategic thinking. The way they start their e-book on the 2021 trends is, “Disruption is the hallmark of 2020. Although many leaders are used to some level of constant change, COVID-19 impacted the world in ways no one could have predicted. In turn, organizations have had to pivot and strategize, adapt and change in new ways…. Organizations that are prepared to pivot and adapt will weather all types of disruptions.”

I would call this, “Keep Calm and See What Happens.” Not bad advice, really, but it kind of takes the wind out of the predictions that follow.

Gartner divides its nine trends into three categories: People centricity, Location independence, and Resilient delivery. I would divide them into three other categories: Already happening, Not really technology, and Downright scary.


Already Happening


“Location independence” was an exciting concept back in 1976. It pretty familiar now, although it’s true that COVID has made a lot of locations more independent than before. The three trends in Gartner’s category also seem familiar: Distributed cloud, Anywhere operations, and Cybersecurity mesh.

When you read the descriptions, “distributed cloud” sounds a lot like edge computing. ‘Anywhere operations” proposed the motto, “digital first, remote first,” which sounds a lot like Microsoft’s “cloud first, mobile first” of a few years ago. “Cybersecurity mesh” turns out to be a lot like Zero Trust security.

To be fair, a lot of organizations will be working on these things in 2021. My point is, however, that most people are, one way or the other, working on these now. Perhaps Gartner, in its way, realizes that what we need now is less prediction and more reassurance. God knows we need reassurance.

I would also throw “Hyperautomation,” a trend in the “Resilient delivery” category into “Already Happening.” Gartner’s idea is that “Hyperautomation is driven by organizations having legacy business processes that are not streamlined, creating immensely expensive and extensive issues for organizations,” and that we ought to move to more efficient systems. Everybody I know is already trying to do that.


Not Really Technology


Also in the “Resilient delivery” category are “Intelligent composable business” and “AI engineering.” The whole discussion of intelligent composable business is about how businesses must reorganize to make better decisions. No specific technology, however, is mentioned. One could say the cloud would be the enabler, but that is already happening. The obsession with quick decision-making to adapt to change has been around since about the turn of the century. Actually, I’m not sure which century.

“AI engineering” sounds like an interesting trend. The idea is that AI is moving out of its intellectual and organizational enclave into a broader set of customers, which requires it being integrated into a lot of other information systems. For this to work, new rules of development, DevOps and governance must be established. This makes sense, although certainly the challenges are at least as much organizational as technical.

One of the things I missed in the “Resilient delivery” category, however, is why hyperautomation, intelligent composable business or AI engineering are there. What do they have to do with resilient delivery?


Downright Scary


At last, we come to “People centricity,” Gartner’s third category. Three trends here: Internet of Behavior, total experience strategy and privacy-enhancing computing.

Gartner starts out its report with an example of the Internet of Behavior:

When employees at an industrial site returned to the workplace after it was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, they noticed a few differences. Sensors or RFID tags were used to determine whether employees were washing their hands regularly. Computer vision determined if employees were complying with mask protocol and speakers were used to warn people of protocol violations. What’s more, this behavioral data was collected and analyzed by the organizations to influence how people behaved at work .

Didn’t I see this scene in one or two dystopian movies? And note, your offense goes on your permanent record. Gartner doesn’t see it this way, however. It does worry about the ethical and societal implications. It says, “The same wearables that health insurance companies use to track physical activities to reduce premiums could also be used to monitor grocery purchases; too many unhealthy items could increase premiums.” The problem is, it’s a lot more serious than that.


Health Passports


In its 2020 hype cycle analysis of emerging technologies, cited above, Gartner starts off that report with, “In most cities in China, citizens and visitors must download Health Code — an app that indicates COVID-19 status — to access many public and private spaces and services. A green screen means the person is free to travel, yellow indicates required quarantine and red means a confirmed infection.” Gartner follows this with a similar product in India and says, “The sheer populations in India and China using health passports pushed this technology to a 5% to 20% market penetration, an unprecedented number for a technology just entering the Hype Cycle.”

The New York Times has written an article about Alipay Health Code, which I strongly recommend. The way it works is that the user puts some personal information into a smartphone app, and the app provides a QR code in red, yellow or green. Green allows unrestricted movement. Yellow means you may be asked to stay home for seven days. Red means a two-week quarantine.

You need to show the app for mass transit, at highway exits, and often to be admitted to your job or your housing complex. The decision about what color the app shows is made by an algorithm on a distant server, and the criteria for decision-making are confidential. The Times has some nice case studies of users whose codes have suddenly changed, who aren’t sick, and who have no idea when the color will change back.

Oh, by the way, all the information you put into Alipay Health Code, as well as real time data on your movements, is provided to the police.

This kind of technology, which is on Gartner’s charts with a bullet, is a lot more serious than your insurance company raising your rates because of your diet. But, hey, it’s technology, and it’s a trend.


But Wait, There’s More


In the hype report, Gartner has a “Digital Me” trend, which is a lot like “People centricity.” An example of “Digital Me” is

For example, bidirectional brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), are brain-altering wearables that enable two-way communication between a human brain and a computer or machine interface. BMIs can be either wearables or implants that monitor EEGs (electrical activity in the brain) and individuals’ mental states. The difference between regular monitoring BMIs and bidirectional BMI is that the latter can use electrostimulation to modify the mental state of the person.

In the business world, potential applications include authentication, access and payment, immersive analytics and exoskeletons. But other applications, which have their own social and ethical concerns, might include using stimulation to boost alertness in a fatigued employee or changing the mood of an irritable teacher by applying currents to the brain.

At this point, the Gartner reports are beginning to remind me of when Douglas Adams described an advertising agency’s name for robots as “your plastic pal who’s fun to be with.” I’m sure Gartner would say I’m missing the whole point, and they’re just warning about what’s coming, but they’re doing it in such a polished, professional, careful way.


A Final Attempt to Be Helpful


So what are we to do in 2021? First, embrace uncertainty. Realize that in the same week, you may see stories about how work at home is going to be permanent and how workers miss their “job friends.” Remember how Steve Jobs built his offices so that people would bump into each other with ideas. For foundations, remember that your offices are usually prettier than where many of your staff live.

Definitely, even though Gartner isn’t very explicit about it, worry about dependable and secure connections. You’ve already been thinking about this, but now’s a good time to make sure you did it right.

Third, study your users. Really learn what they’re doing and feeling, not with surveillance but with conversation. As you muddle through today, keep your hand on the pulse of how it’s going.

Fourth, use COVID as a teachable moment about the possibility of more “surprises.” California was supposed to have another big earthquake ten years ago. We’re already seeing fires and floods and possible civil unrest. This is a good time for disaster planning. Maybe that’s one thing about which we can be more certain.

Finally, as the lady says, be kind.

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

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