21 meaningful, trend-driven innovation opportunities for 2021

Need some bulletproof guidance and inspiration after a turbulent year? TrendWatching's content team brings you 21 carefully curated opportunities to help you imagine and build new products, services and campaigns that will have a purposed impact in 2021 and beyond.

UPDATE | Time flies, eh? Do check out our 2023 Trend Check!


Boost urban wellbeing and community

US startup Reef is on a mission to build ‘15-minute cities’ where everything people need can be found within a short walk or bicycle ride. To this end, Reef is transforming its real estate network of more than 4,500 parking lots and garages into neighborhood hubs. It's partnering with other players for micro-fulfillment, e-bikes, pop-up clinics and urban farming.

We’re steadily moving towards people-first, car-free urban environments that prioritize wellbeing. In 2021, it’s high time to contribute to laying a foundation for this revolution. Opportunities include micro-mobility, urban farming and strengthening local communities.

💡 Which building block of the future 15-minute city can your company provide?


Turn crisis into transformational opportunity

In Colombia, Mexican beer brand Corona launched Paradise Advisor: an Airbnb-style platform showcasing Colombian eco-hotels. By championing sustainable tourism, the initiative hopes to help rebuild the hard-hit industry in a way that’s more conscious and futureproof. In Europe, Amsterdam is using current momentum to incorporate ‘doughnut economics’ into its recovery plan, prioritizing people and planet.

As disruption enables new ideas to take hold — 86% of adults globally want the world to change significantly post-COVID — 2021 is about laying the groundwork for a more purposed recovery.

💡 How can you leverage the build-back-better momentum and explore responsible new business opportunities?


Infuse mental wellness into your products

Microsoft has announced new features for its Teams communication platform that aim to improve users’ work/life balance in the WFH world. Microsoft will be introducing a 'virtual commute' feature to create mental bookends for the remote workday. It will also partner with meditation app Headspace and add a new emotional check-in feature.

The era of ignoring mental and emotional health is coming to an end. In 2021, increasingly mindful people will look for products and services that seamlessly boost their mental wellbeing.

💡 How can you recalibrate the impact your products and services have on consumers’ wellbeing?


Reimagine gatherings for today’s mixed reality

Chile-based Sonidos Inmersivos is a platform that hosts live VR concerts and festivals for those seeking to be safely and conveniently entertained from home. Through the platform, the company also promotes Chilean and Latin American artists and helps them widen their fanbase by reaching international audiences.

The accelerated race to champion virtual events has only begun (hint: Zoom, Hopin), with plenty of space left to perfect immersiveness, accessibility and interaction, and to create add-on services and useful tools for both participants and organizers.

💡 How can you leverage virtual events to expand your reach and tap into new audiences?


Expand expertise by hiring older talent

Creative agency Thinkerbell launched Thrive@55: an eight-week paid internship exclusively available to applicants over 55. The program is a response to people’s productivity runway lengthening as societies age. The agency found that only 5% of staff in the creative industry is over 50, which means there’s a profusion of underutilized experience and knowledge to tap into.

As longevity increases, people can, want and need to be productive for longer. It’s now on everyone to abandon ageism and welcome a growing group of talent with a lifetime of experience.

💡 How can your organization benefit from being age-inclusive?


Join the plant-based revolution

Food tech company Eat Just — creator of popular vegan egg alternative Just Egg — opened a pop-up culinary innovation hub in Shanghai, dedicated to plant-based foods. In their Future Food Studio visitors could sign up for cooking classes taught by top chefs who used Eat Just’s latest edible innovations. The faux-egg maker is also building a USD 120 million plant-protein facility in Singapore.

Food, fashion, beauty products, tableware and packaging. The plant-based revolution is hitting industries everywhere. 2021 means last chance to jump on the train to a Plant-ed future.

💡 How can you partake in the plant-based revolution and help consumers adopt more ethical/planet-friendly lifestyles?


Support and empower marginalized communities

Historically, banks have rejected low-income applicants and charged Black and Latinx consumers more for financial services. Greenwood is a digital bank designed to empower Black and Latinx customers. Cofounded by rapper and Black community leader Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render, Greenwood aims to ensure that communities of color can accrue wealth and combat systemic oppression. 

Step by baby-step, the world is moving from systemic oppression to systemic justice and equity. In 2021, cynical consumers demand authentic social justice initiatives of, for and by those who have been sidelined.

💡 What can your brand do to truly address the roots of systematic oppression?


Use waste to enter new markets

Sustainable tights brand Swedish Stockings has partnered with designer Gustaf Westman to turn old hosiery into a range of tables. Each table is made of up to 350 pairs of tights received through Swedish Stockings’ Recycling Club: an initiative that previously collected donations of used tights to be recycled into commercial grease tanks, and now also into furniture.

Tights into tables and grease tanks? Yes, anything can be re-, up- and transcycled. And in 2021, brands will increasingly make use of their waste to enter new markets.

💡 Which market can you enter by transforming trash into treasure?


Adopt robots to automate and data-ify

Robotics companies Boston Dynamics and Rocos partnered up to deploy a fleet of dog-like robots, called Spot, to herd sheep and conduct other agricultural tasks in New Zealand. Rocos is capable of monitoring and operating groups of robots simultaneously, and the strategic partnership aims to demonstrate how robots can explore hard-to-reach areas and use data to streamline business operations.

While fully autonomous cars are unlikely to roam the roads in 2021, we will see wider adoption of robots across different industries: in forests, on farms and in cities.

💡 Where could you apply robots to automate operations and gather data?


Care for employees, even after departure

Due to COVID-19, Airbnb was forced to lay off around 25% of its staff. To help former coworkers, Airbnb launched an Alumni Talent Directory, and its in-house recruiting department became an alumni placement team. Ex-employees can add a brief description of their work history, as well as links to their resumes and LinkedIn profiles. People were also allowed to keep their work laptops, and their health insurance was covered for a year.

Unfortunately, major layoffs are often part of major transitions. But offering support and assistance to former employees can be a big boost to the morale of current and future employees.

💡 What can you do to help departing employees succeed in their new journey?


Take unconventional routes to greener products

To source and ship its beans more sustainably and ethically, Yallah Coffee went old-school and chose a wind-powered sailboat. The three-month, 7,500-nautical-mile journey from Colombia to the UK had a (nearly) zero carbon footprint and allowed Yallah to work directly with growers, ensuring that farmers received more money than they would under typical fair-trade pricing.

Don’t head for your nearest harbor just yet, but consider unconventional routes to building truly sustainable and ethical business operations. And share that journey (sometimes literally) with your customers.

💡 How can you truly tick all of the sustainability boxes that people care about?


Accept, embrace and run with new norms

Kyne Santos is a Filipino-Canadian drag queen and math influencer on TikTok and YouTube. In her videos, Kyne sparks interest for mathematics by telling riddles, giving lessons on the history of math and teaching her 790,000 TikTok followers how to spot misleading statistics in media. All while dressed in high-glamour drag.

Those who do not embrace the ‘new’ in everything can sashay away in 2021, as new norms — in gender, media, education and more — will dictate how brands communicate with their audiences, and what those audiences expect from brands.

💡 How can you adjust your brand’s messages and products to celebrate societal realities?


Reveal true costs and gain consumer trust

The ‘klimatbutik’ is a pop-up shop launched by Swedish food brand Felix where items are priced according to their carbon footprint. Customers have a weekly carbon budget of 18.6 kg, showing them, in a very hands-on way, what the environmental cost of their shopping is. Meanwhile, Felix products that are sold elsewhere are also labelled with a climate-impact scale.

Not just food brands, but restaurants and fashion brands are increasingly adopting carbon labelling to educate consumers on the hidden costs of products while gaining a new competitive advantage.

💡 How can you better educate your customers about the true costs of your products?


Providing online access to all

FoondaMate is a WhatsApp chatbot that allows students in South Africa to access education material without a fixed or stable internet connection. Students can download notes, past papers and research without paying for data, since most mobile networks in SA don’t charge for WhatsApp usage. So, when schools were closed due to the pandemic, students were still able to keep up with their schoolwork.

2020 made the consequences of digital inequality extra salient. In 2021, the demand for creative ways to provide access to all will be higher than ever.

💡 How can you reach and engage with those who lack decent internet access?


Help consumers stop and (not) shop

Fifth Third Bank ran a social media campaign to discourage people from making impulse purchases after viewing ads in their newsfeeds. Where they would otherwise see ads for products, users now saw Fifth Third ads designed to make them think twice about splurging. Countering the highly-targeted temptations thrown at people’s eyeballs, the campaign encourages buying less and saving more.

In 2021, boycotting Black Friday is no longer enough. Increasingly mindful shoppers demand that brands acknowledge the detrimental impact of hyperconsumerism and offer them more than just ‘more’.

💡 How can you actively help consumers make more conscious purchasing decisions?


Bring virtual playgrounds into ‘real life’

Hellmann’s Canada created an island in the popular game Animal Crossing where, for a limited time, players could convert virtual food waste into real food for people in need. Island visitors were given a 15-minute slot to drop off their spoiled virtual turnips. In return, the condiment brand pledged donations to Second Harvest, Canada’s large food rescue charity.

Gaming continues to explode, both in time and money spent. Enabling consumers to use virtual currency, goods and actions to achieve real-world impact is a surefire way to attract attention.

💡 How can you enable gamers to have their virtual actions resonate in the real world?


Transform employees into owners

MAT is a ride-hailing app in Colombia that uses an employee-owned business model. Drivers, called ‘ambassadors’, become shareholders by working for the company, with MAT promising higher pay as it grows. Research consistently shows that employee-ownership boosts satisfaction, motivation and productivity. As for consumers, they’re more inclined to pay extra for services if workers are paid and treated decently.

Uncovering and transforming business models that are harmful to employees will be a leitmotif of the 2020s. By re-envisioning the nature of ownership, companies have a chance to boost brand and employee equity.

💡 How can you build companies where employees truly own the fruits of their labor and skills?


From climate neutral to regenerative

Annie’s, the iconic subsidiary brand of 154-year-old General Mills, is making mac & cheese — its top seller — regenerative, through wheat farmed in a way that sequesters carbon and enriches soils. Many consider regenerative farming a silver bullet in the fight against climate change, including Patagonia, Danone and even Walmart

In 2021, regenerative farming products will make their way into consumers' hands, giving early adopter brands a clear competitive advantage among eco-progressive consumers.

💡 How can you not only do less harm to the planet but leave it better off?


Spark learning through interior design

The Jane Goodall Institute has partnered with Crate&kids (home furnishing brand Crate&Barrel's children's line) to create a line of home products that inspire interest in animals and the natural world. The collection includes a Serengeti quilt, chimp and toucan pillows, and — perhaps most likely to excite budding zoologists — a playhouse modeled after Dr. Goodall's research camp.

As kids spend more time indoors looking at screens, analog home products that intrinsically spark learning and creativity are increasingly important.

💡 How can we engage with the world beyond our screens and teach younger generations without preaching?


Lab-grown meat is coming of age

The Chicken in Tel Aviv is the world’s first lab-grown meat restaurant offering a cultured chicken burger, for free. The chicken, grown in a bioreactor next to the dining tables, is produced by early-stage Israeli startup SuperMeat, which is using the restaurant as a testing ground for their innovative, cultured meat.

“Not doable”, “needs research”, “too expensive”... In 2021, once-ridiculed lab-grown meat will make its way onto consumers' plates while accelerating the overhaul of the traditional livestock industry.

💡 How can you tap into nascent markets before they catch up to you?


Design for people of all abilities

UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People has prototyped the world’s first accessible pregnancy test for people with impaired vision. Results are tactile, with raised bumps indicating a pregnancy. With existing tests, women with impaired vision need help to read a result, which means they can never be the first to know, and can’t experience that moment privately.

15% (!) of the world’s population has some form of disability, which means you’ll gain access to a significant group of potential customers if you take their needs into account. And creative solutions might end up improving your products and services for everyone.

💡 How can you adapt your products and services to be more accessible?

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This edition had many hands in it, including:
Thomas Klaffke
Joaquim Moody
Erick Smet
Izzy Ahrbeck
Liesbeth den Toom
Design & Direction
Zuzanna Loch
Riz Razak
Steve Warr

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