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Future Perfect Emerging Research Themes for 2021 and Beyond
Private Networks for Innovation - 7 Dec 2021
Future Perfect

emerging research themes for 2021 and beyond

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As the physical world continues to dovetail with machine learning and artificial intelligence, Smart Systems will enable previously unimagined capabilities for both the B2B and B2C worlds. After years of frustrating fits and starts, the technology is here to integrate people, processes, and data in ways that enable collective awareness and better decision making. The question is whether business leadership is ready to make the leap and grasp its potential.


We’ve been reading the technology trends articles that always show up at the turn of each year. These “portrayals of what’s to come” are perennially popular because trend spotting seems to come as close as you can get to foretelling the future.

And it’s not a lie that all these isolated phenomena—machine learning, blockchain, nano-medicine, robotic prosthetics, quantum computing, etc.—have come up over the horizon and are hurtling toward us. But after reading these yearly trends wrap-ups, we never believe that we’ve seen a convincing portrait of the future.

Spotting real trends is like watching waves break on the shore, one after the other, while remaining unaware of the deep currents and invisible undertows that cause this surface-reality. The specific trends change from year to year but the impact of the stories is very predictable. They always focus relentlessly on the technologies alone, whereas the real future clearly lies in the complex inter-relationship of many technological, human, business, and societal forces.

The multiple parallel technologies behind the trends have not evolved in isolation. In fact, they have grown up so inter-related and inter-dependent that they not only reinforce each other but create completely new compound effects.

This phenomenon is not just about the impacts of technology on people, business, and societies. It’s also about the impacts of people, businesses and societies on technology development. Networks and information technology’s most profound potential lies in its ability to connect billions upon billions of smart things and people in a way that will stretch the boundaries of today’s business and social systems, and create the potential to change the way we work, learn, innovate and entertain.

So, rather than focusing on “point” technology trends, we are highlighting what we like to call “emerging research themes” that examine the many reciprocal impacts that are occurring between and among technologies, people and society.

Emerging Research Themes for 2021 and Beyond

Thematic Trends


In his book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, Brian Arthur introduced the idea of combinatorial evolution. Very simply, each of our technologies is a system assembled from earlier technologies. For example, the GPS and navigation systems we take for granted in smartphones combine the predecessor technologies of satellites, computing, radio receivers, transmitters and atomic clocks into a new unified and infinitely more valuable technology.

Today, multiple parallel technology developments appear to be increasingly reinforcing and accelerating one another. Cloud infrastructure resources are providing unprecedented computing scale. Mobile computing devices are extending the reach of computing itself. Machine learning and AI are bringing intelligence to diverse things, and embedded systems and IoT technology are connecting and integrating a broad array of physical and digital applications.

Each of these technologies is powerful on its own, but “catalytic” combinations of these capabilities are multiplying their impacts. Human-connected devices and machine-connected IoT devices enable exponentially more data. The cloud then enables us to capture, analyze and model many phenomena through its computational capacity. This in turn sets the stage for AI and machine learning tools to analyze and capture new insights.

Interestingly, the value of a new technology lies not just in what it does, but also in what future technologies it leads to. Every new technology becomes a building block for new innovations.


Digitization, AI, and machine learning are creating an economic and business world that’s vast, automatic, and invisible. Information technology’s impact on “autonomy” is moving ahead quickly. Business that once took place primarily among computer-assisted humans is now being executed by ever more complex adaptive systems without human intervention.

Inside such systems, reliable and blindingly fast processors do what they are very good at doing (and what people are very bad at doing): digesting billions of data-points, interacting with each other about the data, and controlling each other based upon the state of the data. All in a matter of nanoseconds. Human beings cannot do this, nor should they. This incessant stream of ongoing data is becoming automated. Business is increasingly being conducted in an “invisible” unseen digital domain that is quietly creating a parallel economy.

The nature and behavior of this new invisible economy are concerns that have yet to really take center stage—not only in business communities, but in most governments and institutions, too.


We’ve experienced hundreds of years of volatility around the cycle of centralization and de-centralization of resources and decision making. In recent years, it seems a long wave of centralization has reached its peak in social, industrial, financial, technology and geopolitical spheres. We can now see the emerging scale and influence of centralization in new digital businesses that collect and sell data on behaviors. (Consider how large, powerful, and intractably indivisible businesses like Google and Facebook have become.)

As we end the second decade of the 21st century, many of our biggest challenges in society and business still originate directly from our inability to creatively collaborate to solve many significant and very threatening cross-border problems (pandemics, climate change, availability of water and food, and many more).

But just as tides shift according to the gravitational pull of the moon, we also are seeing the emergence of a cycle of de-centralization and distribution of resources. Powerful distributed technologies such as IoT, edge computing, blockchain and more are once again demonstrating the power of decentralized systems, relationships and interactions, and potentially setting the stage for a new era of large-scale collaboration and problem solving.

Just as the extensible, technology-neutral nature of the Internet has allowed it to scale so dramatically and gracefully with minimal central administration, we need a similar approach to enabling problem solving at scale for our most intractable problems.


As more and more companies delve into developing smart networked systems, they are quickly finding that competitive differentiation is shifting away from unique, vertically focused product features to software that enables systems to automatically adapt and foster interactions between and among users in a networked context.

As our technologies become easier to use and economically more attractive, domain-fluent practitioners are becoming a new, more aggressive force in how software gets developed and utilized, and in the scale of its impact. We no longer need specialized people in white lab coats to do specialized things. Climate scientists who are not “software people” can now model complex weather systems with no need for direct involvement by computing technologists.

As this shift occurs, every man, woman, child, citizen and business becomes a software developer. Software is infiltrating virtually every market and niche, and displacing hardware, labor and services amidst this significant shift in how smarter solutions will be realized.


The modern business enterprise has been deconstructing for decades. Companies used to develop the logistics, tools, and processes they needed right inside their four walls. Today, no one thinks of a company as bound by the four walls of a building. Companies are ecosystems now, value delivery networks consisting of a disassembled set of business functions and entities—some owned directly, many sub-contracted, but all requiring orchestrated data and information.

The dis-integration of traditional enterprises that has been driven, in part, by the decades long wave of outsourcing is restructuring businesses into three broad segments or roles: platform players, horizontally focused providers of outsourced “professional services,” and vertically focused “specialist” product and service businesses.

Future enterprises will all be part of ecosystems and value delivery networks composed of new and novel roles and interactions. This will bring an end to the era of “command-and-control” alliance and partnering strategies with a dominating “host” company at the center dictating rules to “parasitic” partners. Collaborative communities and new value networks will be self-organized by people who are motivated to explore and develop ideas they care deeply about. The technology and business solutions we are describing will have much less managerial hierarchy, command and control decision making or proprietary ownership of ideas.


Our last research theme focuses on the complexity of Smart Systems. As the number and diversity of stakeholders expands (users, sellers, supporters, benefactors, etc.), and the volume and nature of their interactions grows, the systems or “technology architecture” will inevitably become more tightly coupled to the “business (model) architecture” and, in turn, the so-called platform becomes the central organizing mechanism required to deliver new data and information-driven services.

Platform development decisions must be aligned with the corresponding business and revenue models these technologies will inform. These two “architectures” must be viewed in close proximity. Technology architectures and business architectures need to be mutually supportive without inhibiting one or the other.

However, trying to coordinate and leverage the respective roles of technology architecture and business architecture often creates contention. Many of the participants in this emerging arena that we speak with are coming to see the continuously evolving relationship between these two dimensions as fertile ground for innovation. They need to be interwoven and mutually supportive. In fact, from our own direct consulting experiences, we believe success in either—technology architecture and business architecture—increasingly goes to the company that effectively utilizes the combined potential of both.


For quite a few years now, Harbor Research has focused on what we call “Smart Systems”—the convergence of pervasive or embedded computing with the packet-switching “network of networks” called the Internet. We use the term “Smart Systems” to describe a new generation of computing and data architecture that looks very different from classical information systems and computing technologies.

What does this all mean?

The many “nodes” of a network may not be very “smart” in themselves, but if they are networked in a way that allows them to connect effortlessly and interoperate seamlessly, they begin to give rise to complex, system-wide behavior. This allows an entirely new order of intelligence to emerge from the system as a whole—an intelligence that could not have been predicted by looking at any of the nodes individually.

In Smart Systems, the physical world dovetails with machine learning and artificial intelligence to produce previously unimagined capabilities for both the B2B and B2C worlds. After years of frustrating fits and starts, the technology is here to integrate people, processes, and data in ways that enable collective awareness and better decision making. The question is whether business leadership is ready to make the leap and grasp its potential.

Our thematic research work is continuously evolving, and we welcome your comments and questions.

This essay is supported by Harbor’s Growth Strategy Insight “Thematic Research and Trends.”

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December 10, 2020