By Robert Hickson 23/02/2021

This post is a mix of a few recent reports on trends, recent discoveries or developments. Topics covered are the future of work, the geopolitical shift from oil to semiconductors, transition to low carbon futures, disappearing Artic sea ice, and AI in health care.


Yesterday’s Gone

A Canadian report from the Brookfield Institute identifies eight megatrends that may affect employment by 2030. It notes that the pandemic has accelerated some existing trends and shifted the importance or impact of others.

The eight trends they highlight are:

  1. An increasing shift from in-person to virtual interactions and activities
  2. Greater questioning of capitalism
  3. Pervasiveness of digital technologies, and the growth in biotech and space technologies
  4. Growing recognition of a climate crisis
  5. Movement toward racially just and inclusive futures
  6. Re-evaluations of work-life balances and wellbeing
  7. Geopolitical and demographic power shifts
  8. Developed countries’ reliance on immigration


8 “core truths” about the future of work?

A report from the commercial real estate company CBRE identifies what it calls “8 core truths” about the future of work. These are derived from surveys of employers and employees across several countries. The focus is on office workers rather than on a range of other types of work.

CBRE found that only 28% of employees desire fully remote working, with most preferring a mix of home & office-based working.

The “core truths” relate to the themes of talent, location, occupancy, and design & experience:

  1. Increased desire for choice and flexibility by employees
  2. Changed workforce policies to enable hybrid workstyles
  3. Decentralised office strategies
  4. Worker migration to lower cost areas with better quality of life
  5. Embracing planning amid uncertainty
  6. More flexible workspaces
  7. Reimagined workplaces that enhance wellbeing and productivity
  8. Use of digital technologies in ways that improve work environment and employee experiences


“Core truths” is marketing spin, implying much more certainty than is warranted. Whether some of the current desires will continue post-pandemic is uncertain. However, it is reasonable to assume that there has been a shift in expectations by office workers. This builds on the pre-pandemic interest in improving work-life balance, though, for example, four-day working weeks.

What the report doesn’t assess is how desires match realities. For example, for workers with families and strong social connections uprooting to move elsewhere while desirable in a work sense may not be feasible due to other factors.


Geopolitics on a chip

The investment analysis firm TS Lombard highlight that Taiwan and South Korea are becoming the “new OPEC”. They are the leaders in semiconductor production. While China and the US are racing to improve their own chip manufacturing capabilities, Taiwan and South Korea still dominate. The two countries account for 83% of global processor chip production and 70% of memory chip output. This, the blog post states, means that China can’t exert too much economic pressure on Taiwan, though military threats remain an option.


The “Paris effect”

A report from SYSTEMIQ discusses the impacts that the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change is having on shifts towards lower carbon economies. It notes that while there have been rapid and encouraging changes, and the appetite by firms and governments for further reductions is growing, there is still a lot to do, particularly beyond the power generation sector.

Their illustration of past, present and future low carbon solutions is useful in showing what else still needs to be done.

Green for go: As they reach competitiveness through the 2020s, cleaner, low-carbon solutions across a number of sectors can break into mass markets and begin to scale. Source: SYSTEMIQ



Reducing artificial fertilisers

Nitrates and their environmental and health impacts are currently topical. Pivot Bio is using bacteria that produce nitrogenase, which converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, as a replacement for artificial fertilisers for crops. They already have several hundred thousand acres of maize growing with their product.

The method does not involve genetic modification, but how they enable the bacteria to start producing nitrogenase is proprietary.

Several other companies are also seeking to develop sustainable fertilisers.


Too many solar panels can be bad

Colonising deserts with solar panels sounds like a good idea. Lots of sun, few other uses for the land, cheap clean energy. But a new modelling study indicates that very large scale solar farms in the Sahara (more than 20% of the area) could change the climate in other regions. This is because the solar panels don’t distribute the heat in the same way as the sand, leading to an increase in local temperature, which in turn affects sea and atmospheric conditions that can disrupt rainfall elsewhere.

A useful warning that illustrates that any very large scale project needs to be carefully scrutinised no matter what potential benefits are promised.


The future of cooling

Staying with the temperature and energy topic, the International Energy Association says that nearly 20% of electricity use in buildings goes to running air conditioners and fans.

Demand for cooling is rising rapidly, and they predict that by 2050 around 2/3 of the world’s households may have an air conditioner, with about half of these being in China, India and Indonesia.

Reducing the need to cool buildings will have a significant impact on energy requirements, and carbon emissions.


Arctic ocean open for business year round now

A cargo ship has travelled through the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic ocean. It is normally impassable for commercial ships during winter, but not this year.  Arctic may now be open to shipping year round, signalling not only the changing climate, but also risking other environmental damages due to increased shipping and commercial activities.


AI’s lacklustre contribution to the pandemic

Using artificial intelligence in health care is hard. Remember IBM Watson and the company’s hype about AI revolutionising health care? Watson was discharged from health care services a few years ago, and IBM now seems to be trying to sell it completely.

Similarly, despite attracting huge amounts of funding, other health care-related artificial intelligence applications haven’t had a big impact in the Covid-19 pandemic, as a commentary in Politico points out. AI has been better at helping health care workers identify which Covid-19 patients to focus on, rather than being a good diagnostician.

One area where AI has performed relatively well is in identifying potential treatments (through assessing information on large numbers of existing compounds). However, only two treatments – dexamethasone and remdesivir – have so far received FDA approval, and these didn’t require AI to identify.

It’s not that AI in health care is inevitably hopeless, it’s more that health care is complex and not just about finding correlations. A review in The Lancet found that many diagnostic applications have reporting and analytical biases. Greater transparency about the algorithms, more collaboration, and larger & better designed tests are required.


Featured image: Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash