2020 proved itself the most unprecedented year in modern history.

Paramount shifts in the global market caused by COVID-19 led to innovative changes across industries. An increased need to modernize and adapt emerged, including advances in health care, the strengthening of digital connectivity and flexibility in manufacturing. Clemson University’s researchers are among those responding aggressively to the challenges of 2020.

And as a Carnegie R1-classifed major public research university, Clemson’s work foretells the most significant trends expected to emerge in 2021 and beyond. The expertise and knowledge of Clemson’s researchers provide a glimpse into the future of the state of South Carolina, the country and the world. From health care to agronomics, advanced manufacturing to mobility to big data, here is what Clemson’s experts say to expect in the coming year from those industries predicted to see some of the biggest changes.

Disease prevention

Image of Anjali Joseph in a suit in front of the Operating Room mock-up in Charleston, S.C.
Anjali Joseph is a professor in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. She has served as a principal investigator on several grants from different foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Kresge Foundation.

In the year of COVID-19, health care took center stage. Designing for flexibility and adaptability by integrating architecture and technology into health care has proven to be of paramount importance as the world navigates a pandemic.

As effects from COVID-19 linger, innovations in indoor air quality are expected to expand exponentially and well beyond health care facilities into offices, college campuses and other settings.

“Increased use of telemedicine and its implications for the design of health care settings will continue to play an essential role as the health care industry shifts to meet the needs of the future. We will also see a greater focus on caring for staff to prevent burnout by providing respite and recovery spaces. Burnout is not new to the health care industry, but it has been exacerbated by the stresses of COVID-19.

“The need to improve indoor air quality to prevent the spread of infectious diseases will continue to be a priority, as well as the focus on improving hand hygiene in buildings through the placement of highly accessible handwashing stations. We will also see greater use of cleanable and more ‘institutional’ furnishings outside of the hospital and long-term care settings. The use of these products is common for health care facilities, but we can expect them to transition into everyday settings, like offices.”

– Anjali Joseph, director of the Center for Health Facilities Design and Testingendowed chair in Architecture + Health Design and Research, professor of architecture

Food security

Adam Kantrovich headshot in black jacket and orange shirt
Adam Kantrovich is a professor in the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences. He focuses on agribusiness and the impact of economic policy, trade wars and tariffs on the agricultural economy. He also holds expertise in agricultural farm financial analysis, agriculture labor challenges and taxation as the director of the Clemson University Extension Tax School.

Technology is advancing across all industries, and agriculture is no exception. Farmers are up against changing weather patterns and instability in the workforce, which stress the need for innovation across several facets of agriculture, including plant genetics and robotics.

New technologies and support systems will continue to emerge, designed to decrease risk to farmers and automate processes that are a danger to humans while providing more stability both to the farming industry and the food supply chain.

“Although 2020 was a difficult year for everyone, it provided and highlighted various needs in agriculture and our food chain. I believe there will be an invigorated focus in the coming year(s) in additional plant genetics as well as technology development that can eliminate some of the need for human interaction required within our food systems, such as robotic or automated planting and harvesting equipment for specialty crops, and within the food processing industry.

“Farmers have always had a significant amount of risk in their daily lives that brings with it stress. It has become more stressful over the last few years, and 2020 was no exception. But for many, 2021 may be just as stressful if not more so. Many within the agricultural industry do not discuss how mental health plays just as important of a role as physical health does in their family life, as well as in the success of the farm. It is important that farmers know there are resources available to them through a great number of groups, organizations and other entities to receive the mental health care that is needed.

Clemson University Extension Agribusiness Team provides programming in this area and has compiled some resources that are available.”

– Adam Kantrovich, Cooperative Extension Agribusiness Program team member, Extension associate professor of agribusiness

Advancing manufacturing

Woman in suit sitting down.
Paris Stringfellow is a professor in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. Her work focuses on addressing cybersecurity needs of manufacturers so workers and manufacturers alike have the skills and tools necessary to adopt secure, energy-efficient approaches to their business operations and supply chains. She also serves as the chief commercialization officer for Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CyManII).

As industry continues to edge into Industry 5.0, automation and efficiency will be accelerated and amplified by the human experience.

As manufacturing lines are transformed through robotics and greater connectivity, manufacturers are seeing increases in energy efficiency, productivity and cost savings; however, it’s also creating new vulnerabilities.

Safety protocols for workers are standard in manufacturing now, but in 2021, innovations will focus on protecting advanced manufacturing systems, namely addressing digital threats and protecting against cyberattacks.

“Manufacturers know that to remain competitive in the global market, they are going to have to modernize. Digital technologies give suppliers real-time information and control of their systems, which allows them to operate more efficiently. They can adopt agile operational approaches like on-demand production, optimize energy usage, and enable their employees to make better decisions and be more productive. When companies upgrade with cybersecurity in mind, they are able to increase productivity and also mitigate their risk.

“Small- to medium-sized manufacturers are the heart of the country’s industrial economy, but many still resist the transition toward digitization and modernization by adopting an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. Unfortunately, this trend is leaving many manufacturers unknowingly open to cybersecurity vulnerabilities through their legacy systems.”

– Paris Stringfellow, program director at the Clemson University Center for Advanced Manufacturing, research assistant professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering, chief commercialization officer for the Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute


A professional headshot of David Clayton, Executive Director of CU-ICAR and assistant vice president in the Office of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives.
Since his arrival at Clemson, CU-ICAR Director David Clayton has contributed to strengthened relationships with corporate partners, like Bosch and Samsung, as well as supporting communication among partners and staff on the great work faculty are doing as part of these strategic partnerships.

2020 has seen increasing interest and momentum in financing and developing groundbreaking mobility technology. This will not slow in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has only driven up demand for automated vehicle technology as a result of increased demand for food and package delivery platforms.

As demand for food and package delivery platforms continues to grow, so, too, will new business models, revolutionizing these industries through autonomous driving technology.

“To date, commercialization of driverless technologies has firmly been in the realm of advanced driver assistance and safety features, falling into the first three levels of automation as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. The fourth and fifth levels of automation are game changing and market ­­­­­­­defining, where new business models emerge that can revolutionize entire industries — think robo-taxis and automated food delivery. While the market potential for autonomous driving has always been clear, several factors are now converging that could make it a reality in the coming decade.

“One key factor to the sector’s growing optimism is the rollout of high-bandwidth, low-latency wireless networks, which will be required for the vehicles of the future to communicate with each other and the infrastructure around them. As 5G and future networks are deployed, the digital highwa­­y will be laid for fully autonomous cars to be possible.

“Most importantly, our understanding of how to program algorithms and integrate sensors to enable vehicles to safely navigate crowded roadways has vastly improved. Each year, significant progress is made in computing, cybersecurity, user acceptance and systems integration to pave a path for the deployment of autonomous vehicles. These advances are made possible through the research of experts in both industry and academia, including many at Clemson University.”

– David Clayton, executive director, Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR)


Jordan Frith in orange shirt outside Sikes Hall
Jordan Frith is a professor in the Clemson University Department of English. He recently published “A billion little pieces: RFID and infrastructures of identification,” which explores the history and applications of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, a ubiquitous but often invisible mobile technology that identifies tens of billions of objects as they move through the world.

Over the past year of remote work and distance learning, many have relied on home internet and phone connections more than ever before. This increase in wireless connectivity usage will only continue as technology advances and more devices are connected to wireless networks.

Building on the speed of 5G innovations in 2020, the new year will focus on bandwidth as the next area of interest. Look for innovations designed to eliminate spotty service in crowded spaces and that allow for more connected devices such as autonomous vehicles.

“5G networks will continue to develop and will continue to be a major source of tension between the United States and China. 5G has become a major source of competition and international friction between China and the United States, with the United States attempting to exert international pressure on countries to not adopt Chinese 5G technology.

“One of the big questions for 2021 will be how the Biden administration approaches the relationship with China, and that question will potentially have major consequences for the development of next-generation mobile infrastructure.”

– Jordan Frith, Pearce professor of professional communication

Economic recovery

Scott Baier is a professor and department chair in the Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business. He has served as a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers, where he provided economic analyses of current events and pending legislation and assisted with the production of the Economic Report of the President.

The economy at the beginning of 2020 looked promising; it was growing, inflation remained low, and the unemployment rate was below 4 percent. COVID-19 changed the outlook in a matter of a few days.

Economic recovery will look and feel different than any in modern history. Growth forecasts will hinge on vaccine development alongside government stimulus as well as new “best practices” for financial stability tied to the pandemic.

“Spending fell dramatically on goods and services involving face-to-face interactions. For instance, Opportunity Insights reports spending on accommodations and food services, entertainment and health care fell by 60 percent compared to their levels in January. As a result, the economy lost over 20 million jobs in April and the unemployment rate increased to 14.7 percent. The most widely used measure of economic activity, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), fell at an annual rate of 31.4 percent.

“Over the last few months, the economy has started to recover. It was supported by actions taken by the fiscal and monetary authorities, as well as safety precautions taken by households and firms in response to the continued threat of the pandemic. Second-quarter GDP growth grew at an annual rate of 33.1 percent, and the unemployment rate is now at 6.7 percent.

“Most forecasts of economic growth for 2021 are cautiously optimistic and hinge crucially on the vaccines and the development of other prophylaxis that will help bring an end to the pandemic and a return to normal activity. Economic growth in 2021 may also be supported by an additional round(s) of monetary and fiscal stimulus as well. Finally, productivity growth may also be given a boost as firms and households integrate some of the best practices employed during the pandemic as the economy returns to normal.”

– Scott Baier, professor and department chair, John E. Walker Department of Economics

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