As we’re nearing the end of 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic dragging on for yet another year, it’s easy to forget our world has also become better in many, many ways. Here are just 21 ways the world has become better in 2021.
(Sources: Forbes, Springwise, The Happy Broadcast, Wikipedia, and many others! Also, thanks to my 11-year-old niece Maggie for helping me choose which 21 made the final cut.)
1. COVID-19 vaccines prove their effectiveness in the field
First, and most obviously, the COVID-19 vaccines developed at lightning speed last year have proven highly effective in the field in preventing the spread and impact of COVID-19. We still have a long way to go, though, in distributing them equitably throughout the world.
2. Ten countries are powered almost 100% by renewable electricity
Climate change, sustainability, and renewable energy have been big news this year, and 10 countries are already generating at least 97% of their electricity from renewable sources. Some on the list might surprise you: Albania, Bhutan, Congo, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Iceland, Namibia, Nepal, Norway, and Paraguay.
3. Workers in Portugal are protected from work texts and calls after hours
Smartphones mean we’re always accessible, but that’s not always a good thing. In a bid to attract more “digital nomads”, Portugal has now made it illegal for bosses to contact employees outside work hours. Employers must also pay for their employees’ working from home expenses – such as increased electricity and Internet bills.
4. Malawi has built the world’s first 3D-printed school
One of the biggest barriers to universal education is the high cost of building schools. The world’s first 3D-printed school has been built in Malawi. It was built by 14Trees, a joint venture between a British development firm and a Swiss building company, and was faster and cheaper than traditional building and construction techniques.
5. An African woman leads the World Trade Organisation
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister, is both the first African and the first woman to be director-general of the World Trade Organisation.
6. A human brain wirelessly connects to a computer
In a potential breakthrough for patients with spinal cord injuries, scientists at Brown University in the USA connected a human brain to a computer, allowing people with paralysis to move robotic limbs by mind control.
7. An ocean drone captured footage from inside a hurricane
In September, an underwater autonomous drone steered into the middle of Hurricane Sam, a Category 4 storm off the coast of Bermuda. Researchers from drone company Saildrone and the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hope to use the data collected to better understand hurricane behaviour.
8. Sales of zero-emission vehicles surpass diesel sales in Europe
When it comes to electric vehicles, Europe has been far more progressive than most other parts of the world. In September, sales of electric vehicles surpassed diesel vehicles for the first time. Global supply chain issues might have contributed to this being a temporary blip, but it’s still a positive sign for the future.
9. Great Barrier Reef expands in massive coral spawning event
Marine scientists are worried about the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef – for example, with three large bleaching events during heatwaves in 2016, 2017, and 2020. In a welcome sign, in November, a massive coral spawning event led to the birth of billions of new coral babies.
10. Astronomers see light coming from behind a black hole
In yet another real-world example of Einstein being proved correct, astronomers observed – for the first time – light bending behind a black hole (800 million light years away from Earth). By observing the light’s journey, they hope to understand better the behaviour of black holes and their surroundings.
11. Lab-grown wood could reduce the environmental harm of deforestation
Just as we can now grow meat in the lab from culturing animal cells, researchers at MIT in the USA have discovered a way to grow wood-like material from plant cells. This technology could eventually “grow” furniture, reducing the environmental harm of logging in forests.
12. Scientists closer to a vaccine for HIV
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has consumed our attention for the past two years, but scientists are also working on other viruses. A new form of vaccine engineering might have created a breakthrough with a vaccine for HIV, which has been among the most difficult to target with vaccines in the past. The researchers even suggest this novel approach could be used for other viruses.
13. Grocery stores in Poland uses AI to set dynamic pricing for food
Startup company Wasteless has developed an AI-powered system to automatically reduce the price of perishable food items on shelves as they get closer to their use-by date. They are rolling this out in grocery stores in Poland before taking it global.
14. Olympics smashed LGBTQ+ record
More than 160 openly LGBTQ+ athletes – a world record – competed during the Tokyo Olympics. They represented 27 different countries, and if they had been a country, they would have ranked 12th in the final medal count.
15. Artists in Ireland guaranteed a basic income
Universal basic income (UBI) is the idea that everybody gets paid a non-means-tested “living wage”, allowing them to participate in society without having to worry about basic needs. A new pilot project in Ireland – backed by €25 million funding – will offer this for around 2,000 creative workers next year.
16. Google’s DeepMind sequences every known protein
The “protein folding problem” has been a major challenge in biology for decades, with many creative approaches applied to solving it – including turning it into a computer game. Now, Google’s AI software DeepMind has solved this problem, uncovering the structures of 350,000 proteins – dramatically increasing our ability to identify and cure diseases.
17. Coca-Cola trials first paper bottle
Coca-Cola, which – along with Pepsi – was ranked the world’s biggest plastic polluter, is working on technology to create a 100% (recyclable) paper bottle. The first versions still have plastic lids and plastic lining, but the company is hoping to eventually make it 100% from paper.
18. Germany allows driverless vehicles on public roads
Germany has legalised the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads from next year. The law still restricts this to certain geographic areas, but allows full use and not just for testing purposes (for example, safety operators behind the wheel won’t be required).
19. Smart contact lens improves vision for vision-impaired people
Mojo Vision, a startup company in California in the USA, launched a smart contact lens that augments what vision-impaired people can see in the real world. It eliminates the need for a bulky VR headset, replacing it with an unobtrusive, practically invisible device.
20. Chile constitution could set new gender equality standard
Chile, a highly patriarchal society where the Catholic Church has a powerful influence, embarked on the journey to create a new constitution this year, to replace the 1980 constitution developed during the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean people consciously rebelled against its past by ensuring the 155-strong assembly is equally represented by men and women.
21. The Perseverance rover makes oxygen on Mars
One of the biggest challenges in space travel is the lack of oxygen. The MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) on the Perseverance rover successfully converted some of the Martian atmosphere, which is composed mostly of carbon dioxide, into oxygen. This raises hope for future Mars missions.