A Top Tech Trends Debate 2021 event report
Avion has always been a forward-thinking agency, passionate about emerging trends. For two years, I acted on the board of The Churchill Club—a collective dedicated to discussions about technology with strong ties to Silicon Valley.
I stepped down from my board position in 2019 to move to the US but have kept an interest in its events. The Churchill Club hosted its annual flagship event last night, The Top Tech Trends Debate. The premise? A panel of experts fight it out to decide what will be the next big thing in tech in 3-5 years, and the audience votes on a winner. Curious? Let me give you an overview of what was said, along with a few personal insights.
2021 tech trend: Higher education transformation
By panellist 1: Jodie Imam, co-founder and COO of Tractor Ventures
Jodie believes that in the next 3-5 years, future students will have more opportunities to engage in hybrid models of learning that are recognised by industry. They will offer an immersive mix of digital content and in-person teaching, and improve access to education in poorer nations.
Jodie backs this trend with a statement by Michael Batko, CEO of Startmate, who says: “Education is still a one size fits all model that trains future generations to be a cog in the wheel of the old economy.” Research shows the best learning is mostly ‘by doing’, followed by coursework and mentoring. People are already pursuing their own professional development with fast-growing platforms like Masterclass, featuring Gordon Ramsay and James Cameron as teachers.
My thoughts: Disagree
I love Jodie’s argument as a top tech trend, however I disagree that it will be the next big thing. I feel shaking up the Australian education system has been brewing for many years—in fact, this theme was the winning argument at the Top Tech Trends Debate in 2017 (see the PWC wrap-up)—yet traditional institutions are still lagging to catch up. Further, while people are hungry to co-create curriculum and design their own future, it’s going to take a lot more than 3-5 years for some industries (for example, medical) to recognise certifications outside the university system.
2021 tech trend: Voice interfaces
By panellist 2: Gavin Appel, founder, Ignition Lane
Gavin believes the way we are interacting with voice technology is changing, and that voice interfaces are the next frontier. The market for voice assistants will double to 8.4 billion by 2024 and he says they will disrupt every industry like the smartphone has done before. Beyond the home, we will see voice used in medical practices to speed up reporting. We’ll also see it closing cross-border business deals, where leaders will speak different languages but understand each other in real time, thanks to Google closed captions or Skype automatic translation.
Gavin’s reasoning that voice interfaces will explode in the next 3-5 years? It’s already a natural mode of communication. Using voice is instinctive, it’s not a new experience. Voice is a natural behaviour—it’s already second nature and therefore can be adopted quickly and easily.
My thoughts: Disagree
I do not believe that voice will explode in 3-5 years. It’s already here. While its application and use has accelerated dramatically, there are still technical challenges around natural language programming to overcome before it becomes a fluid part of our everyday lives. Yes, voice is already incredibly competent at booking an appointment, but it still lacks the intelligence to see through sarcasm and contextual awareness to understand user intent. You can learn more in my 2019 LinkedIn article: 5 things copywriters needs to know about Ai and conversation design.
2021 tech trend: SME technology
By panellist 3: Kate Pounder, CEO of Technology Council of Australia
Kate believes the next big thing in tech will be ‘SME tech’—defined as tech solutions that address pain points for small to medium businesses. Well known examples of SME tech companies from Australia and New Zealand include Canva, Xero, and MYOB.
The reason Kate thinks this will explode in 3-5 years is COVID has forced this market group to become more digitally literate. And SME tech is now more accessible thanks to cloud-based products; before we only had ‘sexy tech’ that wasn’t made for this sector.
Kate says 98% of people in Australia work for SMEs. Her own research shows if SMEs started using more than one app, this would inject $7-billion dollars in the economy. It would also have a positive social impact by helping automate the mundane, allowing SME workers to have better work-life balance.
My thoughts: Agree
As a SME owner, I am constantly relying on cloud-based tools to run my business—and the number that are available to me continue to grow by the day. Anecdotally, I’ve seen COVID result in many talented professionals rethinking their careers, and whether by redundancy or personal choice, they are leaving corporate companies in droves and starting their own businesses too. This widens the market even more and I think there is a lot of potential for SME tech to become more useful and more integrated, driving socioeconomic change.
2021 tech trend: Going off-grid
By panellist 4: Reeta Dhar, Former National Head of Emerging Industries Team at Westpac
Reeta believes that citizens will be flocking off-grid to achieve total energy independence. Why? Because we are tired of living in the same economic system that hinders positive change and has let us down time and time again. Reeta cites the COVID toilet paper saga as an example of how highly centralised systems perform under stress.
Due to growing mistrust in government combined with the crisis of climate change, Reeta says in 3-5 years we will have had enough and want to take more control—starting with the freedom to store and discharge electricity through means like solar panels and electric vehicles. Such technology has developed rapidly and is now more accessible, ready to scale.
My thoughts: Agree
Solar panels and electric vehicles are not exactly new, but I believe Reeta makes a very good point about such technology becoming more readily available. Furthermore, younger generations have a feeling of urgency of not only wanting, but needing to do something about it because of the government’s continual incompetence. Plus, the relatively new concept of storing and sharing energy within communities is better understood. Some panellists argued otherwise—that going off-grid isn’t achievable for lower socioeconomic groups—but I still agree with Reeta that in the next 3-5 years, people will start taking energy into their own hands where they can.
2021 tech trend: Proteomics
By panellist 5: Dr Andrew Webb, Head of Proteomics Research Laboratory (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) and CSO/cofounder at Mass Dynamics
Andrew believes that the science of proteomics will transform our knowledge of disease and shape the future of personalised medicine.
But what exactly is proteomics? It’s the study of the 23 million proteins in every cell, which has the potential to take personalised healthcare to a whole new level.
In 2004, we unlocked the entire human genome, and this has become a gateway towards learning so much more. We’re starting to understand biological differences in a whole new light and proteomics will change the game of how we diagnose and treat disease. Andrew says $1.4 billion has already been invested in proteomics in the US, excluding academic initiatives, and this means we’ll start seeing a lot more impact from its research in the public domain.
My thoughts: Disagree
While there’s no dispute that proteomics research is progressing at lightning speed, I believe the adoption and acceptance of personalised medicine is much farther away than 3-5 years. Hesitation with COVID vaccines has proven that labs can move fast, but people’s mindset cannot. In addition, personalised medicine requires centralised records. In Australia, My Health Records was launched in 2009 with more controversy than uptake despite its positive intent.
2021 tech trend: Augmented intelligence and democracy
By panellist 6: Barbara Sharp, CEO of Plaetos Group
Barbara believes that augmented intelligence is set to disrupt democracy for the better. How? By empowering policy makers to make more informed decisions, faster. Rather than working solo, people and AI will come together in a human-centred partnership, where we have the power to reduce reporting time from 7 hours to 7 minutes—something that Barbara’s company Plaetos is already doing.
According to Gartner research, ‘support augmentation’ will surpass all other AI initiatives by 2030. As such, organisations like the G7 and OECD will be able to make decisions based on richer sets of information that include both scientific data and social data (like sentiment), leading to better outcomes.
My thoughts: Disagree
I’m not across the research to agree or disagree with Barbara here, but my instinct tells me that no matter how smart AI will get, policy makers will always want to be in charge. As Reeta explained in her argument, there are too many egos in government that often leave policy makers stuck in a ‘juvenile sandpit’. Look at the way they’ve struggled to juggle health and science advice during COVID. Is it really the amount or speed of information that’s the problem? I would love to think AI will disrupt democracy for the better, but I’m unsure—particularly in a timeframe of 3-5 years.
The winner is… proteomics!
The Top Tech Trends Debate is an audience-driven event. After votes were cast, the winner was announced: Dr Andrew Webb on proteomics and personalised medicine. I had actually disagreed with this trend, but never argue with a scientist, I suppose! Thank you for organising the event, Churchill Club. I look forward to reflecting on all six topics in 3-5 years’ time.