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15 Biggest Innovations of 2021 To Influence Product Design

What were the biggest innovations of 2021? The first one is obvious. 2021 was a banner year for science.

And there continues to be a lot of talk about — and predictions around — decentralized platforms and cryptocurrency, with as many believers in its eventual takeover as there are skeptics. We were most impressed with practical applications such as these data-crunching cryptocurrency business models to increase data security and heat homes.

Each year we ask staff to nominate the biggest innovations of the past 12 months that will have an influence on product design. The nominations for biggest innovations of 2021 came in many forms, from products to trends to movements. And this year, we also fielded ideas from our friends at Delve!

What does every innovation on the list have in common? All were interesting enough to attract our attention in a year full of (variants?) various distractions:

This is a picture of bottles containing mRNA vaccines, number one on our list of biggest innovations of 2021.

1. mRNA Vaccines

Before we started getting jabbed with Pfizer and Moderna’s synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines in 2021, there had never been a vaccine approved to immunize people against any kind of coronavirus. The FDA’s original hope had been to secure a vaccine with at least 50 percent efficacy to curb the pandemic. The mRNA vaccines provide 90 percent efficacy. … Mic drop.

What to expect next: A ‘pan-coronavirus’ shot that will protect people against all the Covid variants, plus other types of coronaviruses.

2. Widespread Adoption of Digitally Delivered Healthcare

Online healthcare became more prominent and acceptable in 2021, thanks in part to changing legislation and the continuing e-commerce-ification of, well, all the things. Digitally delivered care levels the playing field by expanding accessibility, and teletherapy and tele-pharmacies, in particular, smoothed out the friction points. In the Before Times, you might have waited months to get into a dermatologist for a script, but in 2021 you could get an Rx online in a day. Maybe not the safest in all situations, but who would’ve thunk it.

What to expect next: Teletherapy looks like it’s here to stay … and grow. Mental health grew enormously as a business category in 2021, and tech-enabled mental health companies are poised to continue to thrive.

3. A “Great Shift”

The Great Resignation and associated worker shortages, walkouts of McDonald’s employees (unionization of Starbucks baristas!), and workers demanding more flexibility regarding where and when they want to work — all factored into a workforce shake-up that seemed to hit every sector and shifted power from employer to employee.

What to expect next: More workplaces unionizing, and the Chief People Officer will become the most important C-suite seat in the corporate world as creating a meaningful human experience inside and outside the workplace becomes more essential to attract and retain talent.

This picture of a young person with their head on their desk illustrates "The Resignation Generation," one of our listed innovations of 2021.

4. The Resignation Generation

General exhaustion from being overworked in China’s “996 system” — the practice of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — coupled with disillusionment about their future led Chinese youth to proclaim they were “tang ping” or “lying flat” in Spring 2021. The Tang Ping manifesto reads in part, “I will not marry, buy a house or have children. I will not buy a bag or wear a watch. I will slack off at work … I am a blunt sword to boycott consumerism.”

This “resignation generation” is present throughout Asia. And the rising anti-capitalism in the West (and backlash against hustle culture) is all part of the same trend of the younger generation letting go of previous generations’ norms and expectations — by doing less, or doing nothing, or doing differently.

What to expect next: Companies to start experimenting with a 954 system. Will Tang Ping and like-minded youth around the world be persuaded to work like Boomers? Not likely. Wharton prof and author, Adam Grant, predicts the four-day work week will become a competitive advantage in 2022 for companies across the world that are trying to attract talent.

5. Climate Legislation

2021 brought a wave of extreme climate disasters, from a cold spell in February in Texas to the worst floods in sixty years in South Sudan in November. The progress of climate legislation to drive real change seemed to move three steps forward, two steps back — but at least it’s not five steps back? Can we hope for a legit worldwide movement to make real change that’s led by people and not by politicians and corporations lining their pockets?

What to expect next: Activism culture and environmental responsibility, especially among Gen Z and Millennials, to continue pushing politicians and corporations in the right direction.

6. Progress for the Right-to-Repair

The growing right-to-repair movement has been advocating for legislation that would require manufacturers to provide access to parts and tools for repair. They saw major successes in 2021. In July, President Biden signed an executive order that pushes the Federal Trade Commission to make third-party product repair easier. And in November, Apple gave in to years of pushback by announcing Self Service Repair, a new program designed to let users perform common repairs on devices at home.

What to expect next: Manufacturers to increasingly design products in ways that make repair part of a product’s end-to-end experience, as consumers’ expectations of repairability continue to rise.

This picture of the Revolve Wheel, a travel-friendly portable wheelchair, illustrates one of our biggest innovations of 2021, namely premium design applied to accessibility products.

7. Premium Accessibility Products

Remember when OXO Good Grips was the only mainstream example of universal design? In 2021 we saw the debut of high-profile accessible products that boast premium design. These include Revolve Wheel, a travel-friendly portable wheelchair designed by a former Ferrari designer; and the Nike GO FlyEase, a shoe that slips on and off, hands-free, and can assist wearers with a wide range of conditions, from flexibility issues and arthritis to visual impairments. “Blending in” used to be the goal for accessible products, but these latest products are even cooler than what the cool kids have. It will truly be one of the biggest innovations of 2021 if companies are able to figure out how to price premium accessibility products to be affordable.

What to expect next: More accessible products to receive the premium treatment as more businesses realize that everyone wins (including their bottom line) when accessibility is approached as design for all — and not just for the edge cases.

8. Investment in Climate Tech

Investment in climate tech was noteworthy in 2021. As PwC notes in its year-end report on the state of climate tech, climate tech startups accounted for 14 cents of every venture capital dollar committed as of the first half of 2021. Investments in climate tech totaled $88 billion from January to July 2021 — a 210% increase from the same period in 2020. The number of active climate tech investors rose from less than 900 in the first half of 2020 to over 1,600 in the first half of 2021. And 78 climate tech startups, 43 of which are from the transportation and mobility technology categories, are worth more than $1 billion (a.k.a unicorns).

What to expect next: More investment in climate tech as the world races to lower global greenhouse emissions.

9. A Camera the Size of a Grain of Salt

And it can take better pictures than your iPhone. Researchers from Princeton University and the University of Washington debuted this new type of optical system called a metasurface. It enables a micro-camera to generate clear images outside of a laboratory setting, which has exciting implications for future medical products, such as endoscopes, and for consumer electronics. One day in the future, one entire surface of your smartphone could be a metasurface.

What to expect next: Micro-cameras with more computational abilities, such as object detection and other sensing modalities relevant for medicine and robotics.

Picture of someone scanning a QR code with their phone

10. A QR code Comeback

The pendulum swing of the QR code from invisible to ubiquitous is one symbol of how the pandemic upended norms and changed our behavior in 2020 and 2021. Over the last two years, it proved its worth as a touchless information-design surface as so many of us used QR codes to look at menus, settle up bills, and check in for appointments.

What to expect next: Designers to figure out new ways to use QR codes. As “a low-cost gateway” to information that can be constantly updated and adjusted, QR codes have implications that transcend restaurants and retail.

11. Web3 and the Early Beginnings of Decentralized Platforms

As money continues to pour into cryptocurrency, the potential for decentralized platforms has started to bubble up to the surface and make waves. The dream of the next version of the Internet, according to figureheads like Square CEO Jack Dorsey, is called web3 — an open computing system where control and profit is distributed among people, not monopolized by platforms. Web3, digital currency, and the decentralization of it all will surely rock some boats — in a positive way — in the world of finance and peoples’ everyday lives.

What to expect next: Many more experiments, fueled by massive creative energy and inflows of crypto (and fiat) currency.

12. Ocean-Cleaning Bots

The nonprofit Ocean Cleanup Project launched in 2013 with the stated mission of clearing 90 percent of floating plastic from the world’s oceans by 2040. The project went “live” in 2021 when, during a 120-hour pilot, the project’s System 002 — or “Jenny” as the crew nicknamed it — scooped up 20,000 pounds of plastic. While that amount is less than a garbage truck’s standard haul, the successful test proved the project is scalable. Even better, there are other ocean-cleaning vessels in development that don’t leave a carbon footprint. They include FRED, the Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris,who runs on solar power; and the Manta, a trash-eating sailboat that plans to collect three tons of trash per hour once. Its pilot run is scheduled for 2024.

What to expect next: This category of climate tech to grow. As we think of ways to keep plastic from polluting our bodies of water, we also need strategies to remove what’s already there.

Image of screens in a workflow for a non-invasive glucose monitoring device

13. Non-invasive Glucose Monitoring

Devices to make living with diabetes easier have been in the works for years, and researchers continue to make progress. Traditionally, the process of monitoring blood glucose involves drawing blood to take a measurement or using a sensor embedded under the skin to reveal blood sugar levels in real time. In 2017, we included FDA approval of the Freestyle Libre Flash in that year’s list of top innovations. That device replaces finger sticks with wired enzyme technology embedded in a sensor to measure glucose in subcutaneous tissue. SugarBEAT, which has received CE clearance for the market in Europe, sits on your skin like a patch and measures your glucose by running slight currents that cause glucose to move within the interstitial fluid right below your skin.

This category pops up on our biggest innovations of 2021 list because of news out of Penn State this past November. Researchers debuted a promising prototype of a wearable device for needle-free glucose monitoring that uses a nonenzymatic glucose sensor to measure glucose levels in sweat. While the concentration of glucose in sweat is about 100 times less than the concentration in blood, the device is sensitive enough to accurately measure the glucose in sweat and reflect the concentration in blood.

What to expect next: Noninvasive glucose monitoring that’s as accurate as the invasive kind. It’s been a dream for years. Will it come to fruition soon? We’ll be watching.

14. Tech for an Aging Population

The pandemic of loneliness among the elderly is becoming a worldwide emergency as populations age. Nearly 30% of Japan’s population are elderly. By 2034, Americans over 65 will outnumber people under 18 for the first time. Alarming data about avoidable deaths (due to isolation) and suicides (due to loneliness) among this demographic make the urgency of solving these problems even more acute.

In 2020 and 2021, COVID exacerbated isolation, and tech tools eased the burden. A widely read New Yorker article about what robots can and can’t do for the old and lonely relayed how New York State’s Office for the Aging launched a pilot project, distributing Joy for All “social robots” to state residents and then tracking them over time. Seventy percent of participants felt less lonely after one year.

During the pandemic, Rendever, a VR startup led by a pair of MIT grads, developed the RenderLive virtual reality service. In 2021, it helped more than 250 senior living facilities mitigate staff shortages and the battle against isolation by delivering programming like virtual vacations, laughter yoga, and guided meditations. TIME named RendeverLive a 2021 Best Invention.

What to expect next: The “silver economy,” or active-aging market, to continue to be an opportunity for tech companies. This is especially true in the U.S., where older adults are more likely to live alone than in any other country. Watch Rendever, who is collaborating with the University of California at Santa Barbara on a multi-site clinical trial on the effects of virtual reality on older adults with cognitive disabilities and their families.

15. The Mainstreaming of Design Activism

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a rise in activism and awareness that continued to permeate the design profession at large in 2021. The industry is rethinking its hiring practices, and designers are questioning and challenging the way their work compounds the systems that underpin social inequity. Design activism is by no means new. But in the last two years, the larger design community’s interest in social and humanitarian design, and in society’s expectations of design, exploded.

That was evidenced in the uptick of discussions about activism across the industry and in the formation of several high-profile coalitions to make change. 2021 saw the formation of the Diversify by Design (DxD) collective, a group of nonprofits, educational institutions, individuals, companies, and agencies taking action “to create a racially just and equitable design profession.” Diversity in Design, another initiative that launched in 2021, brings companies such as Herman Miller Group, Pentagram, Adobe, and fuseproject together to level the design playing field.

What to expect next: More design practitioners engaging in this necessary work to rethink their roles and responsibilities.

Thanks for reading our Biggest Innovations of 2021! Go back in time with our Biggest Innovations To Influence Product Design archive