Look ahead

The key events shaping the world of tech in 2021

Luke Christou looks at the key events shaping the year and how they might affect the technology industry.

Having brought live events to a halt, forced a new way of working and accelerating demand for green solutions, Covid-19 kept the technology industry on its toes throughout 2020.

With the vaccine rollout underway – albiet at varying speeds across geographies – we can begin to look ahead to some level of normality. However, as the tech industry makes up for lost time and adjusts to a very different world, 2021 will continue to offer plenty of opportunities and challenges for the sector.

From Brexit to the Super Bowl, we look ahead to the key events that will shape the tech industry in 2021.

1 January - Brexit transition period ends

After years of uncertainty, the UK and the European Union finally agreed a trade agreement, which came into effect from 1 January.

The agreement provides businesses with some clarity, and a commitment to continue to support the industry by maintaining cooperation in areas such as telecoms, cybersecurity, and net neutrality.

However, there will still be challenges for the tech industry. With tougher visa processes for EU workers, it is estimated that the UK’s tech industry could see up to 16% of its workforce seek employment abroad. If realised, this will put further strain on a sector that already struggles to meet demand for skilled workers.

While the deal eliminated the threat of additional restrictions, tariffs and quotas, businesses will face additional checks, paperwork, and regulation that could disrupt processes in the short term.

Data adequacy – a status given by the European Commission to non-EEA countries that offer similar levels of personal data protection – also remains a cause for concern. The UK did not automatically retain its GDPR equivalency when the transition period ended. However, alongside the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), a ‘bridge period’ was announced that will allow data flow to continue as normal for up to six months while the EU assesses the UK’s data protection adequacy.

The UK will bring GDPR into UK law, ensuring that the EU’s data protection regulations remain in place. However, the European Court of Justice’s Schrems II ruling against the US, coupled with the UK’s use of mass surveillance, could provide reason for the EU to deem the UK inadequate.

“Unfortunately, the UK was also named as a partner in many of the global surveillance programmes revealed by Snowden,” Darren Wray, CTO of Guardum, explains. “This, combined with regulation such as the Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) which enshrines state surveillance in UK law, means that EU firms will be forced to see the UK as not offering adequate EU data protection.”

20 January - Joe Biden inauguration

Despite Donald Trump's baseless election fraud claims, Joe Biden is now the 46th president of the United States this month. The industry is hopeful that this will spell the end of Donald Trump’s tech war with China, which has been challenging for businesses on both sides.

“Under Trump, the AI arms race has become quite hostile,” Anders Borg, senior advisor to IPSoft company Amelia, explains. “As we head towards a recovery period, the technology industry will be looking for Biden to engage with Europe and China in a more orderly and predictable way.”

However, Biden’s manifesto promised to “confront foreign efforts to steal American intellectual property” and “bring back critical supply chains to America so we aren’t dependent on China”, suggesting that the US will continue to put pressure on its biggest rival.

US companies, however, will welcome Biden’s commitment to strengthening innovation in the states. Clean energy technologies, in particular, are likely to benefit — an area where, Biden says, Trump has given China a “free pass to outcompete us”.

With Biden’s manifesto somewhat light on detail when it comes to tech, many businesses will be holding their breath as they await to discover his stance on issues such as big tech monopolies, misinformation, and federal data privacy laws.

7 February - Super Bowl LV kicks off the return of spectators

While a return to packed arenas is still some way off, larger crowds will begin to return to the stands for major sporting events in 2021. Kicking off the calendar is the Super Bowl LV, with Florida’s Raymond James Stadium set to host approximately 22,000 fans. The delayed UEFA European Championship and Tokyo Olympics are set to follow months later in a summer of sports, although both remain liable for further delays or even cancellations if Covid cases remain high. 

According to health secretary Matt Hancock, the UK is unlikely to get ‘back to normal’ until sometime after Easter. Until then, the pandemic will continue to accelerate a digital shift in sports stadiums. The sports industry is expected to turn to a range of innovative solutions, from contactless touchpoints, to footfall analytics, and augmented reality experiences, to entice fans back and keep them safe.

However, for many, it will take more than a vaccine to recover from Covid-19. Public health specialities have warned that Covid-19’s mental health impact is likely to last “much longer” than the physical, with up to 15% expected to experience long-term mental health issues.

With capacities limited and fears lingering, it is expected that streaming will continue to dominate in 2021, with the biggest events likely to test the limits of current streaming capabilities.

Events such as the 2020 Super Bowl and 2018 Winter Olympics set new streaming records in recent years. Now, with demand for sports streaming only growing, events such as the Super Bowl LV, UEFA European Championship, and Tokyo Olympics are likely to set the bar even higher.

“These events will push the limits of streaming capabilities – and the supporting infrastructure – and so providers will need to lean on advanced streaming capabilities, such as dynamic traffic management based on real user monitoring and quality of experience metrics, to ensure they are delivering the flawless experiences that viewers demand,” says Shannon Weyrick, VP Architecture at NS1.

30 September - Huawei ban kicks in

From the end of September, the UK government’s Huawei ban kicks in, which will stop telecoms providers from using Huawei technology in the UK’s 5G networks.

The ban, coupled with the government’s proposed Telecommunications (Security) Bill, shows that security is “right at the top of the UK government’s vision for infrastructure over the next decade”. This will undoubtedly create a challenge for UK telecoms providers as they seek out high-quality, safe suppliers to fill the gap.

Many are already considering established suppliers, such as Japan’s NEC, Finland’s Nokia, and Sweden’s Ericsson. However, the ban could also provide an opportunity for homegrown businesses, which would minimise the risk to national security, to step up.

“It has opened up a significant opportunity for home grown talent to step up, take control and fill the gap,” says Martin Rudd, CTO at Telesoft Technologies.

“The UK government has already given Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia part of the replacement contracts,” John Bates, CEO of Eggplant, adds. “However, it has also invested £250m to support the growth of smaller players in the industry as well as additional R&D. So in 2021 it is likely we will see new players emerge in this industry leading the way in innovation.”

1 November - UN Climate Change Conference

Last year was the first time that the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference failed to go ahead since 1995. With Covid-19 distracting from the long-term environmental threat, COP 26 will put climate change back at the top of the agenda.

This year, the tech industry is likely to increase its focus on renewable energy, with the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft – having all committed to becoming carbon neutral – leading the charge.

“As a result, there will be greater impetus to secure alternative power sources such as wind and solar, as well as the use of battery storage,” says James Hart, CEO of Business Critical Solutions.

Oxford University researchers believe the event could provide ‘unicorn’ (startups valued in excess of $1bn) businesses an opportunity to showcase their green technology solutions.

For Thibaut Castagne, CEO & founder of Vianova, COP 26 is also likely to be a lightbulb moment for regulators and city planners as they come to realise the role data analytics can play in solving the climate crisis.

“Following the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, data analytics will be embraced as our most valuable global asset in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050,” says Castagne.

“In the coming years we will see local authorities collaborating and sharing valuable data, as they look to integrate smart infrastructure and new, sustainable modes of transport and logistics, from e-scooters to delivery drones.”

Year-round - Vaccine rollout

The tech industry will play a significant role in the vaccine drive. From sensors inside trucks to monitor vaccine temperature, to site management systems, and contact systems to manage the rollout, “digitisation and automation will be crucial components in the design, manufacturing and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine,” says Dr Vincent Grasso, global practice lead: healthcare & life sciences at Amelia.

Pharmaceutical firms, Grasso says, will need to invest in new systems that allow for the digitisation of the supply chain in order to achieve mass vaccination “at a lower cost and speed”.

The cybersecurity industry is likely to have its hands full in the coming months too, with Microsoft warning that threat actors are targeting those developing Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer and The European Medicines Agency have already faced attacks, with more likely to follow.

“The companies involved in the vaccine rollout are now seeing more attacks as they are very much exposed and could be a profitable target for ransomware attacks,” Candid Wüest, VP cyber protection research for Acronis, explains.

“They are often attacked by targeted ransomware as they cannot afford to have any downtime and therefore are more willing to pay the ransom.”

It’s difficult to say when the vaccine will allow life to continue without restrictions, but many companies are already looking beyond the pandemic and planning accordingly.