Megatrends 2021
PMI South Asia

Five megatrends dominate The Project Economy — and all are contributing to greater societal disruption. But a new ecosystem of change-makers is finding business opportunities with positive social impact. PMI has identified these five megatrends as COVID-19; climate crisis; civil, civic and equality movements; shifting globalization dynamics; and mainstream artificial intelligence.


COVID-19 has had devastating health impacts, with more than 1.7 million people dead by the end of 2020 and the numbers continuing to rise in 2021. And, there are also the dreadful economic impacts. But it’s everything else the pandemic laid bare that’s also forcing companies to rethink business as usual, as the crisis exposed and exacerbated systemic inequalities in income, wealth, employment, and access to healthcare for marginalized groups. Indeed, the UN predicted the pandemic would push 96 million people into extreme poverty, with women bearing the largest brunt, particularly in South Asia.

COVID-19 has transformed the pace and scale of digitalization, with a huge impact on how people work and learn. This has brought some benefits — yet it has reduced the sense of belonging, and increased anxiety, depression, and disengagement. And it has created a divide between digital knowledge workers and those in at-risk jobs or who lack access to high-speed internet.

Climate Crisis

Perhaps the biggest threat humanity has ever faced, the climate crisis can only be mitigated with innovative initiatives — and the project talent to make those visions reality. However, climate change has also been responsible for worsening social inequalities, with disadvantaged populations suffering disproportionately from its effects. The UN World Social Report states that the ratio between the incomes of the richest and the poorest 10 percent of the global population is 25 percent more than it would be in a world without global warming.

The pressure to act is increasing. Organizations that want to be leaders in addressing climate risk must consider the entire project life cycle, and establish tools and metrics to mitigate negative effects throughout the process.

Civil, Civic, and Equality Movements
There was a time when organizations taking a stand on social issues was considered risky, but the mass protests of 2020 underscored that silence is no longer an option. Mass protests increased annually by an average of 11.5 percent from 2009-2019. Now, a lack of action on equality issues is more likely to backfire and breed a lack of trust.

Furthermore, years of data also shows that diversity equals greater business success. Yet, companies have made little progress. PMI’s research shows just 33 percent of project professionals say their organization has a culturally diverse senior leadership team.

Shifting Globalization Dynamics

Emerging markets may have rocketed onto the global stage, but serious infrastructure and education investments are needed to help them move beyond middle-income status. Demographics are also a concern. Gen Z and millennials are now the majority of the global workforce, with more than a third in India and China. Those two countries also represent more than 75 percent of the nearly 88 million individuals needed in project management-oriented roles by 2027.

Large, young populations in emerging markets may sound good—but the reality is high unemployment and rising poverty. And, there’s often a disconnect between organizations and young talent. In 2019, the youth population in Central and Southern Asia stood at 361 million. While the youth unemployment rate in South Asia was 19.92 percent.

 Mainstream Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now table stakes for many companies, having surged well beyond the realm of automating routine tasks. It is making decisions for us based on our behaviors, and using adaptive algorithms to help us navigate unfamiliar environments. The implications are enormous, driving innovation in everything from autonomous transport to AI-powered knowledge and creative work.

But hard conversations around the ethical implications of AI are still needed. The usage and benefits of AI are unevenly spread (see fig. 1). And innovation brings risk: the seamless integration of algorithms into our daily lives means encoded opinions and biases don’t get noticed, let alone questioned. One area gaining traction is the field of emotion AI, which enables machines to read and respond to our emotional states. This could help organizations gain a better understanding of their customers and employees. But, here, too, there are risks and murky ethical areas.

As Rana el Kaliouby, author and CEO of emotion AI pioneer Affectiva, based in Boston, US, succinctly put it: “Every conversation about technologies should consider, ‘Okay, what are the ethical implications? What are the unintended consequences?

How Organizations can Respond

Each of these megatrends will no doubt have enormous repercussions. But they’re not happening in a bubble. Nor are projects.

There are three ways organizations can target all these megatrends, through the types of projects they focus on and their approach, creating a multiplier effect for good — and a powerful magnitude of change:

• Make social impact projects a strategic priority: PMI research shows that 87 percent of project professionals say social impact is a concern for their organization. Making social impact projects a strategy priority helps companies create a more agile and resilient business. There are several ways in which organizations are currently doing this. For example, using tools that help developers mitigate bias in AI models, and explain outcomes in natural language. Or, harnessing AI to model how energy assets will react to big environmental events.

• Foster open and innovative partnership ecosystems: A more diverse range of partners and partnership models can help achieve significantly better outcomes. Local/regional partnerships can also mitigate the negative impact of some of the megatrends. COVID-19 has accelerated new thinking in this arena. There’s no better example of this than the collaborative efforts to create and test COVID-19 vaccines and treatment protocols.

• Rethink relationships with customers and wider stakeholders: Only through a radical reimagining of customer and stakeholder relationships can businesses harness the power of many to ensure they’re solving the right problems for the right people with the right projects. One example of what organizations are doing includes clearly demonstrating a commitment to marginalized communities in order to win projects.

Creating an Ecosystem of Change-Makers

Driving systemic change relies on collaboration and inclusion. Furthermore, this ecosystem of change-makers – all those who can turn ideas into reality – need three key capabilities to succeed:

• New ways of working, including agile, waterfall, and hybrid methodologies, and digital project management approaches such as problem-solving tools, AI-driven tools, and microlearning apps.

• Power skills, such as collaborative leadership, innovative mindset, empathy for the voice of the customer, empathy for the voice of the employee, and the ability to build trusting relationships.

• Business acumen, encompassing a well-rounded set of capabilities that enables people to understand not just their roles, but how their work relates to business strategy and other parts of the business.

But first, change-makers must have the means to acquire these capabilities. Continuous learning is the only way to thrive in today’s environment. Virtual learning is a big part of that. But organizations that raise the bar by using AI to facilitate continuous, agile, and innovative learning — collaborative human-machine learning — are the ones that will excel at driving change.

Read Megatrends 2021 in full.