Project Management Institute

Megatrends 2021: What Every Project Leader Needs to Know

Megatrends 2021 Photo

COVID-19.  The climate crisis. Civil, civic and equality movements. Shifting globalization dynamics. Mainstream artificial intelligence.

Five megatrends are reshaping the world. And they all share a common thread: They’re exacerbating the endemic exclusion, disruption and discontent that have crept into modern society. Amid the chaos, executives and project leaders have been forced to make difficult decisions on how to move forward and what projects they pursue (or not). And PMI’s new Megatrends 2021 report finds the best of these leaders have used these times as a catalyst for change.

“As this year made clear, change is inevitable,” said PMI President and CEO Sunil Prashara. “But by understanding the drivers behind the volatility, organizations and their leaders can thrive in The Project Economy, delivering positive social impact at a time when it’s needed most.”

Here’s what every project leader and changemaker needs to know for 2021:

The Megatrend: COVID-19

The Takeaway: The health impact alone is staggering: More than 2.3 million people have died as of early February. But the virus has also fundamentally altered the business, geopolitical, technological and economic landscape—and exacerbated system inequalities in income, wealth, employment and access to healthcare. For example, the UN predicted the long-term effects of the pandemic could push an additional 207 million people into extreme poverty by 2030, with women bearing the largest brunt. The pandemic has also transformed the pace and scale of digitalization—and amplified the digital divide.  

Megatrend Made Reality: Learning Passport

“The world of education got knocked 30 years ahead overnight,” said Mac Glovinsky, program manager at UNICEF. With schools in more than 190 countries closed, he and his team worked with Microsoft, the University of Cambridge and Dubai Cares to quickly expand an existing digital platform that would meet pandemic-fueled demands of stuck-at-home students in underprivileged areas.

The Megatrend: Climate Crisis

The Takeaway: It’s perhaps the biggest existential threat humanity has ever faced. And while climate change is hardly a new issue, it’s become abundantly clear that time is running out and the pressure to act is increasing, particularly from younger generations. To truly make a difference, organizations must address climate risk with ambitious, innovative initiatives and consider the entire project life cycle.

Megatrend Made Reality: Stella McCartney

The ecoluxe designer began testing out a new tool from Google Cloud that uses data analytics and machine learning to give brands a more comprehensive view of their supply chain. For sustainability-driven McCartney, the project is an opportunity to lead the notoriously wasteful fashion industry in better measuring the impacts of its raw material sourcing on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water scarcity.

The Megatrend: Civil, Civic and Equality Movements

The Takeaway: It wasn’t that long ago that organizations taking a stand on social issues was considered bad business. The massive global protests of 2020—and the past decade of large-scale protests covering a whole host of societal issues—changed all that. Consider this: In the United States alone, at least 15 million people had reported participating in marches over the George Floyd murder by mid-year. Silence is no longer an option—and change is a question of when, not if. People are increasingly turning a spotlight on organizations big and small, scrutinizing everything from hiring practices to marketing campaigns to stakeholder relations.

Megatrend Made Reality: Bandages for All

As discussions over diversity and inclusion dominated, leaders of Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aid brand released a new line of bandages representing non-white skin tones. It was actually a retread of a previous project—that happened to be in lock-step with consumer sentiment growing louder by the day. The century-old brand had previously released a range of bandages in multiple skin tones in 2005, but discontinued them three years later. Smaller companies had tried to fill the gap, but the new project is a powerful statement from a major consumer brand.

The Megatrend: Shifting Globalization Dynamics

The Takeaway: Emerging markets have rocketed onto the global stage, but serious infrastructure and education investments are needed to avoid settling into permanent middle-income status. Demographic shifts are also cause for concern, with much of the world’s youth population centered in these markets. Large, young populations may sound good, but the reality is high unemployment and rising poverty levels, both worsened by the pandemic.

Megatrend Made Reality: UN Office for Project Services

To move the needle in emerging markets, UNOPS invests in a range of projects, from improving irrigation in drought-stricken countries to improving internet access. “Every project is different but they all follow the same logic: create sustainable opportunities in the community to generate revenue and reduce poverty,” said Farhad Abdollahyan, head of the organization’s project management office.

The Megatrend: Mainstream Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is now table stakes for many companies, fueling innovation in everything from fully autonomous transport to AI-powered knowledge and creative work. What’s still lacking are hard conversations around the ethical implications of the technology. The seamless integration of algorithms into peoples’ daily lives means encoded opinions and biases don’t get noticed, let alone questioned. To combat those biases being built into AI, project leaders need to double down on building diverse teams and including different POVs and perspectives.

Megatrend in action: BigUp.AI

Leaders at UK global creative agency AnalogFolk saw how language could affect how people are perceived—and that women often choose wording that makes them sound passive. So the agency developed its BigUp.AI tool that uses natural language processing and machine learning to analyze blocks of text and offer users more powerful wording.

Megatrend Multipliers

Each of these megatrends will no doubt have enormous repercussions on its own. But they’re not happening in a bubble. Nor are projects. Here are three ways organizations can target all the megatrends to create a multiplier effect for good—and a powerful magnitude of change:

1. Make social impact projects a strategic priority.

Ensuring more projects achieve positive social impact isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s a question of business survival. PMI research shows 87 percent of project professionals say social impact is a concern for their organization.

2. Foster open and innovative partnership ecosystems.

Organizations can’t go it alone. A much more diverse range of partners—suppliers, customers, NGOs and even rivals—along with new partnership models can help boost outcomes and mitigate the negative impact of some of the megatrends.

3. Rethink relationships with customers and wider stakeholders.

Whether projects rise or fall also depends on much greater engagement with a much wider audience to better harness the power of many.

It doesn’t matter what sector an organization is in, where it’s located or even what is driving its strategic mission. In the post-pandemic reality, organizations must be ready to adapt to whatever megatrend comes their way. Are you ready?

Read the full Megatrends 2021 report here.

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