Spotlight on breakthrough technologies

Danial Norjidi

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has announced its latest annual list of technologies poised to impact the world in the next three to five years.

Published on November 16, the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2021 is the 10th Anniversary edition of the report.

In a press statement, the WEF said that, from climate change to public health, technology will play a critical role in finding solutions to many of the world’s challenges. “This year’s emerging technologies demonstrate the rapid pace of human innovation and offer a glimpse into what a more sustainable, healthier future could look like.”

The report features a list selected against several criteria and curated by experts convened by the WEF and Scientific American. It was shared that, in addition to promising major benefits to societies and economies, the technologies must also be disruptive, attractive to investors and researchers, and expected to have achieved considerable scale within five years.

Among the top 10 advancement in technologies to make the list are decarbonisation.

According to the statement, “As nations race to deliver on their commitments to tackle climate change, a multitude of technologies that offer lower-carbon footprint solutions, or eliminate carbon dioxide from the air, will need to scale up fast.”

“These technologies will include net-zero emissions air-conditioning, low-carbon cement, renewable energy sources and meat-free protein, among others.”

Also on the list are self-fertilising crops. “Providing food for the world’s growing population relies heavily on such nitrogen-containing industrial fertilisers as ammonia – the production of which accounts for one per cent to two per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.”

“New engineering approaches enable crop plants to produce their own fertiliser by mimicking a symbiotic relationship between plant roots and soil bacteria that occurs in nature.”

A third technology mentioned was that of disease-diagnosing breath sensors. “Human breath contains more than 800 compounds. New breath-sensing technologies analyse these compounds and detect changes in concentrations of compounds associated with diseases.

Early-stage testing has demonstrated the potential of breath sensing technologies to diagnose COVID-19, tuberculosis and cancer.”

Another technology in the top 10 is on-demand drug manufacturing. “Traditionally, drugs are made in large batches through a multi-step process with different parts dispersed among many locations worldwide.

“Recent advances in microfluidics and on-demand drug manufacturing open the possibility of common drugs like antidepressants and antihistamines being made to the exact dose and formulation tailored for an individual, on-site at their local pharmacy.”

A fifth technology is energy from wireless signals. “Devices that do not require much power to operate, such as pacemakers and smartwatches, could soon be wirelessly charged through Wi-Fi and 5G signals, leading to a future where low-power wireless devices never need plugging in.”

Engineering better ageing is another technology on the list. As the statement explains, “Research that unlocks the understanding of ageing mechanisms enables the development of targeted therapies that could one day stave off dementia and other age-related ailments, leading to healthier elderly years.”

Also in the top 10 is green ammonia. According to the report, green ammonia is made from cleaner sources of hydrogen and could provide more environmentally friendly fertilisers for crops.

An eighth item on the list is wireless biomarker devices. “Monitoring chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer requires frequent blood testing to identify and track certain biological markers. Innovations in wireless, portable and wearable sensors integrated in clothing or contact lenses could soon monitor this vital information continuously.”

Houses printed from locally sourced materials are also listed as a top 10 emerging technology, where the statement notes that building houses with 3D printers could help tackle the challenge of inadequate housing for 1.6 billion people worldwide.

“The concept of 3D printing houses has been around for a while, but new advances enable houses to be built from locally sourced materials like clay, saving time, money and energy on transporting building materials to the site.” Rounding up the top 10 is space Internet of things (IoT). The statement notes that at least 10 billion active devices make up the IoT, a number that is expected to more than double in the next 10 years.

“Maximising IoT benefits in communication and automation requires devices to be spread worldwide, but cellular networks span less than half the globe, leaving enormous gaps in connectivity,” it was shared. “A space-based IoT system could patch those gaps, using a network of low-cost, low-weight nanosatellites that orbit a few hundred kilometres from Earth.”

Managing Director at the WEF Jeremy Jurgen said, “Our goal with the list is always to identify those with the greatest potential for impact, but we also want to provide a diverse and inspirational list. Every single technology has the potential to solve major global challenges.”

Meanwhile, Editor-in-Chief at the Scientific American Laura Helmuth said, “We’re delighted to present this collection of ambitious, and potentially transformative technologies. These inspiring and actionable ideas confront some of the most urgent challenges of our time, including climate, health, agriculture and communication.”