15 Biggest Innovations of 2021 to Influence Product Design

We asked our staff to nominate the biggest innovations of the past 12 months that will have an influence on product design.

2021 was, of course, 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.  

Given our wide-ranging expertise and specialties, the nominated innovations on our list come in many forms, from products to trends to movements. We also fielded nominations from our friends at Bresslergroup. What does everything on the list have in common? All were interesting enough to attract our attention in a year full of (variants?) various distractions: 

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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.

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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. 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 politicians and corporations lining their pockets?  

What to expect nextActivism 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 that’s been advocating for legislation to require manufacturers provide access to parts and tools for repair saw major successes in 2021. In July, President Joe 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 nextManufacturers 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.

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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 are using or wearing.  

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 seen 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 Price Waterhouse Cooper 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 totalled $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 nextMore 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.

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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. It proved its worth as a touchless information-design surface over the last two years as so many of us used it 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 in there.

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