How the business world changed in 2021 … “When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
January 3, 2022
2021 was a year of acceleration.
While Covid-19 raged across the globe, and our physical lives were stagnated, it was a year of changing attitudes and agendas, and of rapid adoption of new technologies.
In the very first week of 2021, the first Covid vaccinations were given to the public, having taken only 5% of the time to develop compared to previous vaccines; supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol while Twitter banned the defeated president for “incitement of insurrection”; North Korea’s Kim Jong-un admitted that his 5-year plan had failed; and Storm Filomena hit Spain with a year of snow falling on Madrid in 24 hours.
The year continued at pace.
Stock markets surged, globally delivering a third year of double-digit growth. US tech companies raced ahead, Apple nudging $3 trillion in market cap, while $1 trillion Tesla dominated the EV market, which is maturing rapidly. Climate change joined Covid as the world’s big agendas, the metaverse became as hyped as the space race to Mars, Alphafold transformed bio science and Squid Game brought Korean mayhem to small screens.
Here are my personal anecdotes of a year when “more change in the next 10 years than the last 250 years” seemed entirely reasonable:
January 2021: A glimmer of hope
- 22 year old poet Amanda Gorman wowed the world with “The Hill We Climb” as Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th US president, and Kamala Harris the first female VP. Amidst all the recent turmoil, a glimmer of hope.
- Citigroup announced Jane Fraser, a 54 year old from Scotland, as its new CEO, and the “First Lady of Wall Street”. In her first email to staff she called for them to seek 3Cs in a changing world – curiosity, creativity and courage.
- Business Recoded, my new book, was published together with an inspiring 5 module program for business leaders “ready to step up, ready to create a better world”. It has since been shortlisted for CMI Business Book of the Year.
- Working with business leaders from Electrolux across Asia Pacific, I led a program that explored rapidly changing business models – from Pinduoduo to PingAn – fuelled by a creative fusion of GenZ, digitalisation and sustainability.
February 2021: Explorers to Mars
- GameStop, the troubled US retailer, saw its shares soar by 1,700% as millions of small investors, encouraged by social platform Reddit, put a “short squeeze” on Wall Street. Yet another example of the crowd, and of social influence.
- NASA landed its space vehicle Perseverence Rover on the surface of Mars, while China and the UAE both joined in with their own missions to the red planet. As Elon Musk puts the final touches to his SpaceX Starship, colonising Mars doesn’t seem so crazy.
- 31-years old Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder of the “female first” dating app Bumble, became the youngest woman to take a tech unicorn public, and in doing so become the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
- Financial services is a platform for so much more, was my challenge to Sompo Group, Japan’s largest insurance company, as they defined a new vision to create “a Disneyland of consumer services” that reduced risks and enhanced revenues.
March 2021: The crazy world of NFTs
- Impossible Foods’ exponential growth strategy to transform the world’s diet, led my Stanford professor Pat Brown was a highlight of my “Innovation Safari” with UAE’s Prime Minister’s Office and other leading UAE companies.
- Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) made headlines when Mike Winkelmann, a digital artist known as Beeple, sold an NFT of his “photo montage” work for $69 million at Christie’s. NFTs are ownership certificates of digital items like jpegs and posts, secured by blockchain.
- Evergiven, a 400m-long container ship, caused a global supply chain meltdown, when it got wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal, blocking one of the world’s busiest trade route for over 6 days, demonstrating the fragility of just-in-time supplies.
- Reimagining a port operator as a global supply chain enabler was the theme of my innovation program for DP World, delivered in partnership with Headspring, driving new new strategic innovation projects.
April 2021: Sustainability is the new cool
- Adidas partnered with New Zealand’s Allbirds to create the world’s most sustainable running shoe, the Futurecraft Footprint. The shoe also features a carbon footprint metric, written on the outer sole, and typically 90% less than most sports shoes.
- Europe’s leading soccer teams – from Chelsea and Manchester United to Inter Milan and Real Madrid – got together to form an exclusive, super-rich Super League – but were met by outrage from fans, and the plan soon collapsed.
- Ravensburger is a classic German toy maker, most famous for jigsaw puzzles. I worked with them to reimagine their business in a digital world, however that is less about digital selling and gaming, and more about enabling better human experiences.
- Mylo is a new leather-like material made from mushrooms by Bolt Threads. It’s already being used in a new generation of sustainable Gucci handbags, Stella McCartney couture, and Adidas’ classic Stan Smith trainer.
May 2021: Future proof your business
- Apple and Epic Games, the owner of Fortnite, locked horns in a US courtroom over what Epic said was the restrictive business practices of the App Store, taking what they said were excessive cuts of the revenue, and limiting other sales. Apple won.
- Engine No.1, an activist hedge fund owning 0.02% of Exxon Mobil stock, was able to mobilise other investors and remove three board members at the oil giant’s AGM, saying they weren’t driving change fast enough.
- Working with Deloitte Africa, we brought together government and business leaders to take deep dive into the best innovation practices in both private and public sector – from Amazon to Tesla, to the government programs of Estonia and Singapore.
- Globally, the next 10 years will see 40% growth in over 60s population, which is driving new thinking, not least in China, where the government introduced a new “three children” social policy, compared to the one child of old.
June 2021: Innovate the whole business
- SPACs are the new hype of business finance, where a shell company is listed on a stock exchange in order to acquire another. Anne Wojcicki’s 23andMe, the consumer DNA business, was quick to merge with Richard Branson’s SPAC, VG Investments.
- Fast Company’s World’s Most Innovative Company ranking is my go to list for new insights – this year headed by Pfizer and Moderna’s with their blockbuster mRNA vaccines, Shopify and SpaceX redefining their industries, Spinghill and Epic Games disrupting conventions.
- Gulf Bank engaged me to help them transform their Kuwait-based business for the future, bringing together executive team and top 250 managers from across the business, to focus on digitally-enabled platforms for GenZ and entrepreneurs.
- Circklo is a sustainable innovation network which I was delighted to join as advisor and coach – working with entrepreneurs and evangelists, technologists and transformers, to help solve the world’s biggest sustainability challenges through new technologies.
July 2021: Entrepreneurs and astronauts
- Jeff Bezos stepped down as CEO exactly 27 years after founding Amazon, having created a business now worth $1.6 trillion, and over 1.3 million jobs. New CEO, Andy Jassy, former boss of Amazon Web Services, has big shoes to fill.
- Alphabet’s Deep Mind is making its revolutionary AlphaFold freely available to everyone – the source code of every single protein in the human body, as well as for the proteins of 20 additional organisms
- Virgin Galactic “won” the billionaire space race, when Richard Branson flew VSS Unity into sub-orbital space, a few weeks before Bezos flew his Blue Origin spacecraft even higher to reach the Karman Line, 100km above sea level.
- Segovia, the Spanish world heritage city, was a remarkable setting for this year’s Global AMP with IE Business School. A diverse group of leaders and entrepreneurs joined me in a 13th century monastery to explore the future of business, brands and beyond.
August 2021: Code red for humanity
- Microsoft became a $2 trillion business this month, doubling its value over the last two years, as CEO Satya Nadella’s revolution to AI and cloud technologies is matched by a more human, collaborative, and inclusive approach to business.
- As wildfires raged in Australia and USA, a new IPCC report issued “a code red for humanity” saying that global warming of 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless rapid and deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur.
- Philip Morris CEO Jacek Olczak said that he is ready “to kill the Marlboro Man” and transform the tobacco company to a “smoke free” future, with more than half of net revenues generated from smoke-free products by 2025.
- Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics were a year late, and held in empty stadia, but athletes like Sydney McLaughlin and Karsten Warholm set the track alight with world records, overcoming limited preparation, and enhanced by shoe technology.
September 2021: Crazy Koreans go hypersonic
- Netflix launched “Squid Game” which is a South Korean survival drama where 456 players, all of whom are in deep financial debt, risk their lives to play a series of deadly children’s games for the chance to win a $40 million prize. It is the world’s most watched TV series.
- Hypersonic became a new buzzword, meaning anything that can travel faster than five times the speed of sound, after China reportedly fired two hypersonic weapons around the earth, leaving US military “stunned” by the technological advance, according to the FT.
- Porto was the beautiful setting for this year’s QSP Summit, where I joined Malcolm Gladwell and other speakers to explore a rapidly changing future. It was great to be back at a physical event, however the video of my “WaveRiders: Exploring the Megatrends” keynote gained over a million online views.
- Fashion is at a cross roads – from fast to slow, disposable to sustainable, sold to shared, created to upcycled. It is the world’s second most polluting industry, a symbol of progress to some but superfluous frivolity to others. FashionX was my call to action for the world of textiles and fashion, a 30 minute keynote broadcast live on Bloomberg TV.
October 2021: Welcome to the metaverse
- Mark Zuckerberg chose his best avatar to introduce Meta Platforms – a new parent for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus – and a focus on building the metaverse, a digital extension of the physical world by social media, augmented and virtual reality.
- Coldplay promised a future of net-zero concert tours – powered by solar power, vegetable oils, static bikes, and a battery storage system developed with BMW. It will also install a “kinetic floor” so the more fans jump, the louder the music gets.
- Finland’s Posti engaged me to explore “the quantum store“, the future of retail. ePosti has already developed a series of physical hubs across the country – to send, collect and return goods – but also to give digital brands a physical presence.
- From freezing Helsinki to baking Jeddah, I started working with the board of Savola, the Middle East’s leading food and retail business, to explore future growth potential in existing and new markets, to develop a future roadmap, investment portfolio and business transformation.
November 2021: Enabling teams to thrive
- Amy Edmundson was crowned the world’s leading business thinker. The Harvard professor is a pioneer of psychological safety, articulated in her book “The Fearless Organisation” about creating teams and cultures where creative ideas can thrive.
- Haier’s Zhang Ruimen, founder of the world’s largest home appliances business, stepped down after 36 years. He transformed a Qingdao refrigerator business into a global leader with smart factories, brand ecosystems and his “Rendanheyi” organisation model.
- UN’s COP26 in Glasgow brought together 120 world leaders to address the climate crisis, seeking to reach “net zero” by 2050, and eventually agreeing to “phase down” coal, responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions.
- Suntory, the leading Japanese drinks business, is inspired by “Mizu To Ikiru”, a rich philosophy of growing in harmony with people and nature. We explored how to “grow for good” by harnessing the power of consumers, brands, digital and sustainability.
December 2021: Curious, creative and courageous
- Elon Musk was Time’s Person of the Year, as Tesla hit $1 trillion and dominated the global EV market, SpaceX launched 31 times with its exclusive NASA contract, and Neuralink’s computer brain interface sews chips into brains, giving him a personal $250 billion.
- As the metaverse hype spread hypersonically, Fortnite launched “Party World” for music concerts and brand launches, Gucci Garden sold virtual handbags for more than real ones, H&M partnered with Animal Crossing to launch a new vegan fashion range, and Nike acquired virtual shoe designer RTFKT.
- The Great Resignation saw record numbers of people (40% are said to be considering change, according to FT) voluntarily quitting their jobs in 2021 – in response to re-evaluating lifestyles and priorities during Covid-19, and a desire for more flexible working.
- My year ended with a series of online events for thousands of Oracle leaders across the world – making sense of change, identifying new opportunities, and rethinking what it means to be a leader today. Curiosity and courage emerged as their key words.
Quite a year. After that crazy first week, the pace kept accelerating. Change is driven by technology – we haven’t even touched on quantum computing or Web3 – but it is more driven by changing human attitudes and behaviours – what matters most, to us, and our business, and our worlds.
Making sense of this change is not easy, shaping and leading this change is even harder.
Some of the other keynotes and consulting projects this year have sparked new thinking. Hosting the European Business Forum, I worked with Orsted and Schneider, the world top two most sustainable companies in 2021, learning from their strategies and business models. Hosting the Future Book Forum, I interviewed Andy Hunter, founder of Bookshop.org, an antidote to Amazon.
Inspiration is all around us, from local start-ups to innovators in every part of the world.
Latin America, for example, is becoming a hotbed for innovations, which I explored at Adlatina’s CMO Forum – from Brazil’s Nubank for the unbanked to Argentina’s Mercado Libre retailer, Chile’s plant-based NotCo and Colombia’s Rappi superapp. In the Middle East I found the same, in Asia I found the same. Ambition and ideas shaping a rapidly emerging future.
2021 was a year of change, but also a glimpse of the future. 2022 will be even more exciting.
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