This time last year I was writing a pretty depressed post, having just made the decision not to see my family at Christmas. With luck, this year will be different, in spite of the omicron variant. We’re mostly triple-vaxxed. Some of us have had the virus already. And there’s a weary acceptance that most of us will at some point. Just as long as we can get to New Year first, I’ll be happy.
In last year’s post, I made some predictions. Two out of three I think were on the money. The third will be, it’ll just take some time.
I highlighted the issue of ‘extended adolescence’ in last year’s post. It’s an idea that has resonated with a lot of people, notably at the Student Accommodation Conference I spoke at recently. There, managers in that field told the audience how parents were getting more involved in student’s lives. How they were making fewer decisions unaided. We’re taking longer to emerge as fully independent adults – at least those of us privileged enough to take those extra years are. COVID has only catalysed this trend.
As predicted, COVID also catalysed the introduction of automation technologies into the workplace. In logistics and healthcare particularly, companies have been looking to minimise the reliance on human beings who might get infected (and who might take action if they are improperly protected).
A nation of freelancers
Last I predicted a further rise in the number of solo self-employed as a result of the COVID and Brexit-driven recession. I still think this will prove to be the case. We will likely get new numbers in January. My expectation is that contrary to the 5% drop in 2020, we will see a return to growth in the solo self-employed. Though it may take a little longer for this trend to play out after the COVID shock drove people towards the safety of employment – or forced their micro businesses to close.
2021 in review
My micro business was not forced to close in 2021. In fact, it has been a record year for me – which is part of the reason there have been so few blog posts recently. I feel slightly awkward about this. A futurist’s business is naturally best when the world is at its most uncertain. I didn’t really want to be trumpeting my successes when so many people were having such a hard time for the second year in a row. But if you will indulge me, I’ll briefly point to a few highlights.
When my phone rang this year (or more often when people sent an enquiry through my website), I got an even bigger tingle of excitement than usual because of the scale of the brands who kept calling. This year alone I’ve worked with Barclaycard, Ford, Canon, Pepsi, Mars, Sony, and many more. These are added to the existing client list of Facebook, Google, Audi, BMW, Barclays, Cisco, HSBC, Nikon, NHS, LG, ITV, Kellogg’s, Accenture, Auto Trader, Accor and Bacardi. That’s just the names that pop into my head. I feel like I have good traction with the world’s most influential companies now, and I’m quite proud of that, sat here in my underground workshop in Manchester.
In spite of not being able to travel, I’ve done a lot of work overseas in 2021. My consulting services have been in particular demand from research and innovation teams in the US, both inside big brands and in the external agencies they employ. With my first book being released in China I’ve started to get more enquiries from that direction, alongside my first calls from Japan, Korea and Australia. I suspect I might be putting on some air miles in the year ahead, COVID-permitting, though fortunately for my carbon footprint, much of this work can be done remotely.
I’ve wrestled with my personal brand since starting as a full-time futurist. It will be ten years in 2022 since I started this business. I’ve already been a full-time futurist longer than I’ve done anything else in my career.
When I started, my media profile was very much as ‘Techie Tom’, as Penny Haslam (former BBC Business presenter and my friend and speaking coach) called me. I was still doing gadget reviews on BBC Manchester and Radio X (XFM as it was then), and covering apps on Saturday Edition. As well as popping up regularly on Radio 4 and BBC Breakfast to answer questions about the latest tech stories. A few years ago I decided to leave that side of my profile behind, stepping back from my regular slot on 5live (by then with Phil Williams), and focus on the future. When producers call and ask me to comment on some new gadget or social media spat these days, I generally say ‘no’ unless the story has a strong future dimension.
In leaving the gadgets behind, I also decided to hide my more nerdy nature. After all, I was writing about business and strategy, trends and society, much more than technology. But in lockdown that separation started to make less sense. Anyone on a video call with me or watching a remote broadcast spot (on Sunday Brunch, for example) could see my messy maker space and all the robots around me. My DIY EV project captured quite a lot of attention and actually started leading directly to work. So I decided to rethink the separation of these two sides of my business/brand.
In the last few weeks I’ve launched a new website for my projects (projects.tc) and a YouTube channel to go with it. And with one eye on something big I’ll be launching in 2023 (watch this space), I’ll be doing a bit more consumer-facing future stuff in 2022. And maybe being a little more openly nerdy.
What to expect in 2022
So beyond my own business, what are my predictions for the year ahead? Here are a few things to consider based on what’s currently on my mind:
I’ve done a lot of work on the future of food this year, most recently the report I worked on with CGA Strategy and Bidfood. Here we suggested that the confluence of rising wealth (the average UK adult was £7800 richer after lockdown, even if that number is skewed by the wealthiest) and health consciousness (two thirds of us remain overweight) will drive a focus on foods with strong health promises in 2022. I suspect the plant-based trend will continue, albeit with the beginnings of a backlash as people start to play closer attention to the health and environmental benefits of a diet that is increasingly processed. In place of a purely plant-based diet, people will look to cuisines that are focused on fresh and high quality ingredients: Scandinavian (a halo effect from their success at the super-high end) and Pacific Rim.
At the other end of the market, Burmese food offers an interesting twist on the familiar curry formats, particularly for street food where simple pre-prepared dishes like slow cooked stews (making good use of cheaper cuts), can be quickly dressed up with the cuisine’s traditional condiments.
2022 will see lots of new Augmented Reality headsets launch, though none will be good enough to go mainstream. This is the continuation of the market building that will ultimately see us swap handset for headset in the next few years. It reminds me of the smartphone market circa 2004. Apple may or may not launch its first foray into the market but I’m not sure how many people it will convert. The big unknown is not about the hardware but the software: can they produce a user interface that is sufficiently slick and intuitive that it will appeal?
You will start to see people a few people wearing smart glasses on the street, for the first time since Google Glass. Even if it is only in Silicon Valley or Shoreditch.
The rapid rate of sales growth for EVs will continue, with new brands coming to market and improved battery tech and charging infrastructure allaying people’s fears. 30% of all cars sold could be plug-in vehicles by the end of 2022, based on the recent growth trends. In my little DIY niche, there may be a bit of a battle to make it easier to register cars converted to electric as such: right now the DVLA does not seem to be keen on letting people do this, even though it makes so much sense from an environmental standpoint.
2022 will be a year of confusion in hybrid work as companies try to work out what it really means in terms of policy, practice and technology. Expect continuing conflict between workers and bosses, and more importantly between different cohorts of workers, over the right to work remotely and flexibly. What works for the 40-something with a family and a house doesn’t necessarily work for the younger people they might be managing. This is not to say that a hybrid approach is not the right one, or the most likely one for the majority of office-based businesses over the long term. Just that there is an awful lot more to be done to make this approach successful than just announcing your intention. And it will require a degree of compromise on all sides.
Happy New Year
You’ll notice I’m not saying much about the virus: I’m guessing you’re all as bored of that as I am. But I’m hopeful that we will be able to manage it better in the year ahead. That each progressive mutation may make it more virulent but in return, less harmful. And that our vaccination technologies will continue to advance.
I for one am looking forward to getting out more. Continuing the return to live events that has started in the last month (albeit interrupted now), and catching up with all those people with whom I had to cancel Christmas drinks in order to protect the family Christmas I’ve been craving.
I hope you all have a happy new year. Here’s to a positive 2022.