Digitalisation efforts in every corner of society will accelerate in the wake of Covid-19, predicts Telenor Research. From new technology to combat loneliness, to remote education that’s here to stay, compounded by password panic induced by rising securing concerns - these are some of the trends that will shape 2021.

The year 2020 will go down in history as not only one of the most challenging of the century, but also as one of the most transformative. It was the year when the world joined forces to tackle an unimaginable opponent, forcing the global population to urgently adapt to a new way of life. A life lived much more digitally.

“Telenor is not alone in its 2020 digitalisation journey. The pandemic triggered nearly every industry around the globe to adapt to new ways of working and living, at a rate once thought impossible. The past year has shown that digitalisation will be key to tackling major societal issues, such as rising mental health concerns and climate change in 2021. We also see that greater flexibility for employees is here to stay. On the flipside, warning signs of a widening education gap are emerging as more learning is conducted remotely, and growing cyber security threats and the resulting digital hygiene requirements will spark increased frustration in 2021,” says Bjørn Taale Sandberg, SVP and Head of Telenor Research.

For the seventh consecutive year, Sandberg and the Telenor Research team have analysed and reflected on the year that passed, in order to predict what’s to come. This is summarised in five distinct trends that the researchers believe will be realized over the next 12 months:

Trend 1: Tech supplements touch to tackle mental health maladies

COVID-19 has given rise to growing percentage of people who feel isolated and lonely, triggering a host of new health concerns. Chronic isolation feeds a range of health maladies, including anxiety and depression for example. 2020 showed us that loneliness is a fundamental public health issue; a health issue that we believe will face an unprecedented technological response in 2021.

We predict that eHealth actors will develop and roll out new sets of tools and services related to mental health. In countries with full 5G implementation, we will likely see the first uses of augmented and virtual reality technology applied in holographic communication tools, already within the next year. A new generation of chatbots, specifically designed to engage and help people who struggle with loneliness, will be launched. Drawing on AI, these personalized digital helpers can respond to questions, initiate calls, offer entertainment, and conduct enriching activities that enhance feelings of being connected.

Trend 2: A digital spring for green tech

The pandemic has triggered much needed climate-friendly actions. We believe governments will use the momentum of 2020 to pave the way for a green recovery in 2021, putting climate laws into action. In cities all over the globe, artificial intelligence will be implemented to optimize energy consumption in data centers and mobile base stations. It will help make renewable energy, such as wind power, more predictable, and ‘smarten’ up cities by optimising transport and predicting air quality. AI-powered micro IoT devices, called Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML), start operating, as ultra-small and ultra-low powered drones take to the sky to expand drone monitoring of climate-exposed areas through image processing.

Outside the cities, new autonomous modular robots will work in the fields, supporting farmers who struggle to find agricultural workers. Mechanical weeding with machine vision will streamline the use of pesticides, thus contributing to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

Trend 3:  Emerges as symptom of cyber security challenges

In 2021, those who are not equipped with proper password solutions or who do not maintain strict digital hygiene will experience a surge in what can be defined as ‘password panic’. This is the feeling of utter hopelessness and frustration that occurs when your mind draws another password blank. This is compounded by the general advice to change your passwords every three months and to avoid reusing passwords, which doesn’t exactly relieve any stress. As companies waste time and money when employees struggle to remember their login details, we expect to see greater implementation of user-friendly security solutions in 2021. Password managers across sectors or iris and fingerprint scanning solutions will be more common, ensuring efficiency, security, and one less pain point for workers.

Trend 4: Society-as-a-service offers much-needed flexibility

In 2020, hordes of workers were forced out of their offices and asked to work from home. This enormous and sudden transition happened rather seamlessly, confirming once and for all that connectivity and the right digital tools enable work to be performed anywhere, at any time. This shift will create new expectations among employees, especially concerning increased flexibility to work from home or other locations regularly to enable a better work-life balance. Workers also expect to find amenities that support and facilitate their digital work style wherever they go, marking the dawn of the society-as-a-service age. Don’t be surprised when the coffee shops of today turn into the meeting rooms of tomorrow.

We also expect to see companies rethink and reevaluate their structures, adjusting all pre-digital thinking to correlate with workers’ adaptive and flexible mindsets. Increased focus and up-skilling in cyber security, digital hygiene, and use of new digital tools and technologies to help elevate the competency and thus back the required worker flexibility paradigm.

Trend 5: Mind the educational gap

The COVID-19 lockdowns have proved counter-productive in efforts to reduce the global education gap. Millions of children and young people who currently lack internet access at home suffered the loss of vital education in 2020 when schools went into lockdowns.

In 2021, we expect to see an escalating number of new and creative methods of remote, digital learning to emerge from the rapidly advancing virtual learning sphere. Those equipped with network access and internet-capable devices will be able to take part in this digital leap and reap the rewards. The unconnected will however lose ground. If this urgent issue is not properly addressed, both internationally and within nations, we risk significant setback and a widening educational gap in the coming years. In order to bridge this gap, the education sector and ICT actors must join forces, working together to ensure robust and faster networks, and to promote and support digital literacy for all.

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