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Ever the optimist, even Bill Gates was challenged by everything 2021 threw at him.

In a new end-of-the-year post on his GatesNotes blog on Tuesday, the Microsoft co-founder starts by saying that when he and Paul Allen started their software company, the current state of affairs wasn’t exactly their screen-time vision.

“Like many people, there were entire days this year when the only human interaction I had was through a screen,” Gates wrote about his own social isolation and life online. “The result has been the most unusual and difficult year of my life.”

But as strange and disorienting as the experience has been, Gates said the year “was a reminder that our world is more connected than ever” and showed “just how significantly something happening on the other side of the world could affect you at home.”

In the lengthy post, Gates touches on everything from his personal family struggles to the COVID-19 pandemic and its continued grip on countries and communities around the world.

While he said he’d prefer to write about the things he is working on, Gates acknowledged that a subject closer to home is one that people are curious about: his divorce from Melinda French Gates, announced in May.

“Melinda and I continue to run our foundation together and have found a good new working rhythm, but I can’t deny that it’s been a year of great personal sadness for me,” Gates said. “Adapting to change is never easy, no matter what it is. I’ve been impressed by how resilient my loved ones — especially my kids — have been in this challenging time.”

Gates went on to highlight four key areas that are top of mind for the billionaire philanthropist as we head into 2022. And he concluded, as always, with his reasons for optimism going forward.

Progress toward ending the pandemic

A sign over Interstate 5 near Seattle during the COVID-19 pandemic. (GeekWire Photo)

Because of challenges with vaccine uptake and variants such as Delta and Omicron, Gates said we’re not as close to the end of the pandemic as he’d hoped we’d be by now.

“I underestimated how tough it would be to convince people to take the vaccine and continue to use masks,” he wrote. But he is hopeful that the end is in sight and the acute phase will come to a close some time in 2022.

In assessing all that has gone wrong and right, Gates is cheered by the remarkable progress made on vaccines; non-pharmaceutical interventions; and the impact that individuals can make.

He called therapeutics a “mixed bag” and said the area he sees as the biggest disappointment is the inequity of vaccine allocation.

Concern over decreased trust in institutions

“Based on what I’ve seen over the last couple of years, I’m more worried than I’ve ever been about the ability of governments to get big things done,” Gates said.

While he said the trend toward less trust in government didn’t start in 2020, the pandemic made it worse, citing increased polarization as a significant driver, especially in the U.S.

“There are many reasons for this growing divide, including a 24-hour news cycle, a political climate that rewards headline generation over substantive debate, and the rise of social media,” Gates said. “I’m especially interested in understanding the latter, since it’s the most technologically driven.”

He added that he believes that governments need to regulate what you can and can’t use social media for.

What we can learn from the climate conversation

Gates was encouraged by the enthusiasm and intense engagement at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where he saw a focus on innovation.

“There is now a broad understanding that innovation needs to be at the forefront of any plan to get to zero emissions by 2050,” he wrote. “The private sector is playing a central and necessary role alongside governments and nonprofits.”

Preview of our more digitized future

Virtual Bill: Gates on a monitor in Seattle during a virtual discussion as part of the 2020 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo)

“The last two years have led to monumental leaps forward in how we use technology, accelerating changes that would’ve taken years — if not a decade or longer — otherwise,” Gates said about pandemic-induced digitization.

The most significant change is around office work and how companies will think about productivity and presence in the workplace. Gates said he is excited about how companies and workers approach remote and hybrid work and what type of flexibility will take root.

One of his predictions for workplace technology, especially as it relates to virtual meetings, will be a move away from 2D camera image grids — which Gates refers to as a “Hollywood Squares” look — to the metaverse and a 3D space with digital avatars.

Digital tools will also continue to enhance education and health care, he wrote.

Reasons for optimism in 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic could have been prevented, but the world did not take the necessary steps or invest in the right systems and tools, Gates said. But the good news, he believes, is “that the world no longer needs to be persuaded that stopping a pandemic is important.”

He predicts that the world will see broad support for pandemic preparedness efforts and it will be his own focus in 2022.

Gates also ticked off a checklist of other areas that make him optimistic such as clinical trials for a promising new HIV preventative called islatravir; progress on Alzheimer’s diagnostics; and clean-energy innovations.

He concluded by saying that he thinks 2022 “will be a year when many of us finally settle into a post-pandemic new normal.”

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