In 2021, a 50-year-old challenge – the protein folding problem – was solved by AI, starch was produced synthetically from air, the world’s first 3D-printed steel bridge opened in Amsterdam, and one in four people in the US used cannabis.
These are some of the many predictions on the Supertrends timeline of the future that were fulfilled this year, while some others were not. In the following, we will look at the breakthroughs, the trends that moved faster than expected, the trends being pushed backward, and the trends you should keep an eye on as 2021 draws to a close.
The breakthroughs in 2021
AI continues to show its immense power by solving the “protein folding problem”
In 1972, US biochemist Christian Anfinsen predicted during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that it would be possible to determine a protein’s 3D structure based on its one-dimensional amino acid sequence. This is the famous “protein folding problem” that has challenged scientists for the past 50 years. Until the beginning of this decade, humanity had collectively discovered the three-dimensional structure of 180,000 proteins. Now, an artificial intelligence tool called AlphaFold has predicted more than 350,000 additional protein structures, and it may be able to predict more than 100 million more within months.
3D printing applied to construction and healthcare
The practical applications of 3D printing expanded to architecture and healthcare in 2021. This year, the world’s first 3D-printed steel bridge was opened to the public in Amsterdam, the first commercial 3D-printed house went on sale in the US, and the first 3D-printed school opened in Africa. In healthcare, a three-dimensional biomaterial scaffold was shown to reverse arthritis in mice, and 3D-printed vascularized human organ tissue survived for 30 days in a lab.
Sustainability became a trend across industries
With the US rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and China launching its national carbon emission trading scheme, sustainability became an important trend across industries in 2021. One example is the fast development of sustainable agriculture. After the debut of cultured beef, pork, chicken, and fish, this year saw the arrival of cell-cultured caviar, as well as chocolate developed in the lab, along with the first underground urban farm.
Trends that accelerated
Sometimes the speed of innovation exceeds our expectations. For some trends, faster-than-expected development brought certain milestones forward into the year 2021.
On 6 October 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved the first malaria vaccine. Researchers have been working on a malaria vaccine for more than 30 years. The crowdsourced consensus on Supertrends was that a vaccine would not be approved before 2025. Based on positive (though less successful than hoped for) trial results, the protein-based malaria vaccine Mosquirix was approved for broad use in children by the WHO, marking an important step forward in the fight against one of the world’s most dangerous remaining infectious diseases.
In November 2021, IBM announced the launch of a 127-qubit quantum computer. This set a new record in quantum computing, bringing the industry a step closer to developing devices capable of outrunning classical computers in performing specific tasks. “A quantum computer with over 100 qubits” was originally predicted on Supertrends timeline to happen in 2022.
Also in November, the first zero-emissions container ship completed its maiden voyage in Norway. Although the ship only embarked on a short sail along the Oslo fjord, the journey nevertheless marked a new trend in sustainability that came to fruition sooner than predicted.
Trends that lagged behind expectations
For reasons related to regulation, technology, and sometimes as part of the domino effect of the COVID pandemic, some trends that had been expected to manifest themselves in 2021 were delayed.
Wall Street’s hopes for launching a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) were quashed again by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Despite Bitcoin’s new highs, the SEC rejected an application by US investment firm VanEck for a BTC ETF. Some experts think that this milestone could be postponed for years.
As sales of electric vehicles (EV) boomed, the development of autonomous vehicles (AV) remained stagnant in 2021. iQ-cruise, an intelligent, fuel-efficient cruise control system for trucks developed as a precursor to fully autonomous mobility, remained a pilot program this year despite predictions of its commercialization. Perhaps Apple’s push into the EV and AV field will accelerate the development?
Another milestone was delayed as a direct consequence of the COVID pandemic. In 2020, Sunflower Labs launched the world’s first fully autonomous residential security system that combines sensors, drones, and AI. The company was all set up to deliver their autonomous security system to customers before the COVID outbreak abruptly changed the status of the home security market and led Sunflower Labs to focus on new business applications.
Benchmarks that may or may not be reached in December
The world is changing faster than ever. Although Supertrends strives to bring you news about the most impactful and disruptive innovations, no single company can cover every new technology and new trend. Therefore, we invite you to join us in predicting new trends and spotting their development.
Help us to keep an eye on the following milestones that could still be achieved in 2021!
Self-driving cars are allowed on UK roads. The UK government has said it would change the law by the end of 2021 to define cars with certified standards of Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) as “self-driving”. This hasn’t happened yet, but we are still watching.
The James Webb Space Telescope is launched. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was jointly developed by the US, Europe, and Canada and planned as NASA’s flagship astrophysics mission. The JWST’s launch, initially planned for 2007, has suffered numerous delays. The latest delay pushed the launch date to 22 December 2021. Will the JWST make it into 2021’s list of Supertrends achieved? We certainly hope so!
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