As 2020 draws to a close, many of us will be thankful to bid farewell to a year like no other, one fraught with fear, sadness and challenges.
Yet, despite the hardship of the coronavirus pandemic, this year will also go down as a momentous one for all the rapid developments it has brought about — many of which promise a brighter future.
"Even though the pandemic's been terrible, it has pushed some of these innovations, including in how quickly we make vaccines," Bill Gates said recently the Singapore FinTech Festival. "So there is a bright side and we just need to take full advantage of that while not forgetting that we were not prepared."
CNBC Make It spoke to experts about some of the major breakthroughs achieved this year and the positive shifts they foretell for 2021 and beyond.
1. Health-care advancements
Perhaps the most significant advancement this year has been in health care. In under a year, medical experts developed, approved and began to roll out not one, but multiple, Covid-19 vaccines.
Such rapid progress bodes well both for ending the current pandemic, and also for the future manufacturing and delivery of life-saving medicines.
"In several years, today's record-breaking digitalized manufacturing will have become the norm for delivering life-saving therapies to patients," said Jim Nyquist, group president of software and systems at Emerson, which provides technology to pharmaceutical companies.
Meanwhile, strict lockdowns and social distancing measures forced practitioners and patients to adopt remote medical services. The American Medical Association now estimates at least 90% of physicians have treated patients remotely, with more than two-thirds expecting telehealth to have a long-term impact on how they see patients.
"Before Covid-19, telemedicine was an ambitious project in order to reach underserved or rural areas that did not have medical personnel," said Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, psychologist and professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine.
"Now, because of the virus, many — if not most — medical/therapy visits are done primarily by telemedicine," he said, predicting the trend could help patients well beyond the pandemic.
2. Environmental recovery
From deadly wildfires in Australia and the U.S. to cyclones in India, 2020 has seen record climate destruction. But with international borders closed for the best part of this year and less global travel, the pandemic has also brought some reprieve for the environment.
"With reduced air and business travel and fewer commuters on the roads, the air quality improved drastically — particularly in large metro areas," said John Mullen, president of Capgemini North America.
Major cities saw unprecedented declines in emissions and carbon monoxide levels as road traffic plummeted, providing new environmental data. According to UC Berkley, it took only six weeks after San Francisco's first shelter-in-place for regional carbon dioxide emissions to drop 25%.
Elsewhere, such data also prompted some governments and businesses to firm up their commitment to sustainable initiatives.
"The experience provided an unprecedented demonstration of what is possible with a cleaner future," said Gregg Lowe, CEO of Cree, whose technology powers electric vehicles and renewable energy infrastructure.
"We think (that) will resonate well beyond the pandemic and expect (it) to be a positive catalyst for clean transportation," he said, noting that over 20 countries now have plans to phase out gas-powered vehicles.
3. An education experiment
2020 has been a revelation for education, as students, educators and — often parents — grappled with online lessons. Distance learning is not new. Yet advocates say this year has given society the push it needed to accept digital lessons as one of many important forms of education.
"Online learning is becoming mainstream. Parents and students alike are seeing a benefit in learning online," Divya Gokulnath co-founder of Indian education technology platform Byju's said earlier this year.
Such acceptance is especially important for narrowing the educational divide and providing better tools for underserved markets, said Ted Sun, psychologist and president of Transcontinental University.
"Even though many universities are doing a poor job of distance education, the fact the major brands are doing it has made it more accepted by people across the world," he said. "This opens the door to many online schools to penetrate other markets across the world."
4. Changing work routines
This year has also brought about huge changes in the workplace. As employers implemented remote work policies, employees had to adapt quickly to at-home offices.
For many, that came with the challenge of juggling responsibilities, but it also allowed for more autonomy, flexibility and, potentially, free time.
"We've kicked off a new era of work that is more flexible, employee-friendly and efficient. We no longer have to adhere to the traditional in-office, 9-5 workday that tied work to time and location," said Peter Jackson, CEO of workplace software company Bluescape.
According to a 2020 Gallup survey, three in five U.S. employees now say they would prefer to work from home even after public health restrictions lift. As the trend extends into 2021, DeAnne Aussem, leadership development and well-being leader at PwC, said employers must ensure they're also looking out for staff's personal well-being.
"This year has been a big win for the evolution of how organizations view the employee experience," said Aussem. "Moving forward, I'm hopeful more companies will begin to follow suit in introducing flexible work environments that meet the needs of working parents, employees experiencing burnout, and those who simply need an extra breather."
5. Pushing the agenda for diversity and inclusion
The killing of George Floyd in March this year sparked international protests and reignited the conversation around racial inequality.
The incident led governments and corporations to stand up and condemn racism and make some of their most significant pledges yet to level the playing field for minorities.
Earlier this year, BlackRock, Microsoft and Target were among the major companies to pledge greater hiring of minority employees. Meanwhile, this month, Nasdaq announced it will now require all companies listed on its stock exchange to have at least one director from a minority group.
Sevin Yeltekin, dean of Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, said she is hopeful such commitments could spell real change going forward. "Not only is it past time for us as a society to reshape our beliefs and policies on diversity, inclusion, and access, but there is also a clear business case for diversity," she said.
"The announcement from Nasdaq is significant because business is an influence that can transform us as a society. I hope that this move is the first wave in a tide of change, and the key to a successful rollout is in the execution."
6. Business innovation
The sudden and sweeping socioeconomic impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns hit businesses hard this year. In order to survive, companies were forced to adapt quickly — or change entirely.
While devastating for many, that shift also paved the way for new innovation and fast tracked some of the industries of the future, said Capgemini's Mullen.
"Online ordering and contactless transaction models for grocery stores and restaurants, who each adapted almost instantly to their customers' changing buying behaviors in order to meet demand," he said. "By speeding up these evolutions, industries realized how quickly they can transform — and will likely enable their next innovations at a faster rate."
7. Uncovering travel gems
With international borders mostly closed this year, travel as we once knew it has been largely off-limits. But fewer business trips and more time spent in home countries have granted us the opportunity to explore some of the hidden gems on our very own doorsteps.
This year, as holidaymakers sought the great outdoors, national parks, beaches and ski resorts replaced major cities as travelers' preferred travel destinations, according to Airbnb's recent travel trends report. That's a theme the vacation site expects to extend into 2021.
"As uncertainty persists, domestic travel will continue to be a key trend in 2021," the report said, citing a recent survey in which 62% of people surveyed said they were interested in taking a vacation within driving distance of home. A total of 1,010 adults in the U.S. were surveyed from Sept. 15-19.
"That doesn't mean travelers aren't having new, exciting adventures where they're staying," Airbnb's report added. "Guests are expanding their horizons and seeking unique travel experiences by staying in one-of-a-kind stays," it said, highlighting growing demand for stays in yurts, treehouses and barns.
8. A focus on well-being
The international spotlight has been on health this year, and with more people at home and less time spent commuting, many have taken the opportunity to try and improve our overall well-being.
From virtual workouts to meditation and home cooking, the recent uptake has accelerated an already fast-growing wellness industry.
That has also spurred greater awareness around where our food comes from. Chuck Templeton, founder of restaurant reservation site OpenTable and managing director of S2G Ventures, which invests in agriculture technology start-ups, said that bodes well for new, more sustainable means of food production.
"While Covid-19 has exposed vulnerabilities across the food supply chain — from soil to shelf — it also accelerated industry trends that are helping to solve many of today's most pressing issues, from climate change to food insecurity to food that nourishes our bodies," he said, citing plant-based products, cultured protein and food waste reduction technologies.
9. Greater connection
Physical distance from family, friends and colleagues has been tough for many this year. New technologies and digital communication tools have gone some way to easing that toll, however, with social media and meeting tools such as Zoom seeing runaway success as more people seek connection from afar.
The use of such tools also made it easier to find connectivity during a time of unusual isolation, said Katie Foss, a media professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
"We have never been able to learn about others' experiences in real-time during a pandemic before. Our video-sharing and social media platforms have enabled people to connect with each other on a global scale in a way that's never been done before," she said, citing mask tutorials in South Korea and balcony singers in Naples.
"These types of connection have showcased both hope and humanity and have demonstrated just what technology can allow us to do."
10. Personal development
The bread baking craze may have subsided, but with additional time at home this year, more people have been focusing on personal development and learning new skills.
LinkedIn Learning, for one, recorded a 300% year-on-year uptick in time spent on its learning platform in Singapore. Elsewhere, during the height of lockdowns, creative learning site Skillshare saw a four-times surge in both new user sign-ups and time spent watching tutorials.
"For many people, this time spent on personal and professional growth this past year has been rooted in a more deliberate focus on mental health and well-being," said Skillshare's CEO Matt Cooper.
"I hope that the increased focus on expanding our creative horizons will become an ingrained habit in 2021 and beyond."
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