Starting the Decade  

The decade began with a long standing tradition: the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Promising gadgets like Panasonic’s VR Goggles and new foods like Impossible Pork hit the scene. Mobile video provider Quibi also took the spotlight — although the platform, with its 10-minute “snackable” shows, shut down by October.

The year also started with the loss of Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen on January 23, 2020. Christensen was one of the world’s best-known theorists of disruptive innovation in business. His book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is still considered a must-read. 

Throughout the early months of the year, a novel strain of coronavirus began spreading throughout China, infecting people with the disease COVID-19. By February, the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Europe and the United States. A month later, the World Health Organization labeled COVID-19 a global pandemic. 

COVID-19 Changes Everything

As cases rose, innovators began to pivot to meet immediate needs. That included pivoting to build ventilators, 3-D printing face shields, and developing tests to detect the disease. Large companies — from Black & Veatch to Bayer to Facebook — launched hackathons and accelerator programs specifically dedicated to COVID-related challenges.   

The federal government officially announced Operation Warp Speed on May 15, with the hopes of developing the fastest vaccine in human history. Equipped with an $18 billion dollar budget, the program helped fund the accelerated development of COVID-19 vaccines, and commit to purchases in advance. That included vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna that have a roughly 95 percent efficacy rate at preventing the disease.

With lockdowns and stay-at-home advisories issued worldwide, customers turned to virtual experiences. Video games have been one popular way to stay entertained — with the Nintendo Switch and PS5 consoles in high demand. Social media app TikTok also went viral, with companies and customers hopping on the trend. 

Zoom became the virtual place to be — for work, socializing, and virtual conferences. Innovation Leader also held its largest ever virtual event: our annual Impact conference. With over 800 participants, Impact served up best practices from executives at NASA, Amazon, Walmart, Pfizer, Converse, and more. 

Not every industry had the ability to pivot their core offerings. The hospitality and travel industry drew the short straw. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, four out of every 10 hospitality jobs were lost due to the pandemic. Tens of thousands of airline workers were laid off in 2020 as business and leisure travel plummeted.

The Winners: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and the Unicorns

Amazon sales skyrocketed in 2020, with the company experiencing a year-over-year third quarter gain of 37 percent in net sales. In August of this year, the company received FAA approval to deliver packages by drones, leveling up their ability to meet customer needs. 

Elon Musk spent another year in the spotlight — with innovations on the road, on rails, and in the stratosphere. In March, Tesla released it’s Model Y, six months ahead of schedule; SpaceX sent two rounds of people to the International Space station in May and November; and last month, Musk’s Hyperloop had its inaugural voyage with passengers. 

Silicon Valley unicorns played a big role in helping the stock market get through 2020 with only a few bruising stretches. Those already public giants, like Google and Apple, remained high performers, even when the stock market hit lows. A stampede of companies also went public in 2020, including the highly anticipated IPOs of AirBnb and DoorDash. 

Spotlight on Racial Equity 

Additionally, 2020 has been a year of racial reckoning. After the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, protesters took to the streets throughout the summer as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Companies were left to take a stand and address the factors race plays both in hiring practices and employee experience.  

In fact, Innovation Leader’s “CxOs and Innovation” report released in August of this year found that one of the top new priorities for innovators in large companies was fostering diversity and inclusion. In a follow-up survey fielded in October, respondents shared a wide range of initiatives at their companies. That included investing in diverse startups, providing onsite daycare, and creating more representation at the leadership level, among other initiatives. 

Back to Normal? 

We ended the year with several COVID vaccines winning approval in the US, UK, EU, and other parts of the world. The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna entered the deployment stage in the US, with AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate awaiting FDA approval. Moving into 2021, the spotlight turns to the organizations responsible for its distribution. That includes hospital and care facilities, state governments that are helping to manage roll-out, and the different parts of the supply chain, including shipping organizations like UPS and DHL.

Innovators are left to wonder what a “new normal” may look like, when it will be here, and how they can help their companies prepare for it. However, with both consumers and companies being forced to change their routines, the year ahead may provide fertile ground for innovations of all sorts.