These days, it is easy to focus on the negative. The spread of COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on countries’ economies and their citizens’ health. The novel aspect of this pandemic involves several unknowns and is likely to have a lingering impact for years to come. However, despite the current climate, I am somewhat comforted that the history of past pandemics and crises suggests an eventual recovery plan for the world
After all, necessity is the mother of all invention. New creations arise out of disruption. My optimism is elevated by seeing the massive creativity and initiative of individuals coming together to solve the problem at hand through innovation. In particular, three inspiring phenomena have caught my attention.
1) We can research, experiment, and innovate quickly
While we cannot solve challenging problems overnight, the engagement of companies, universities, governments, non-profits, and individuals around the world has shown that society can focus on tackling real-world challenges quickly. Early research emanating from universities and health agencies in China helped the rest of the world understand the impact of COVID-19, and scientific research efforts continue to grow worldwide. Healthcare workers are our heroes in saving lives, but are also changing how healthcare is delivered. Rapid testing kits to detect the virus were developed within weeks, including Alibaba’s machine-learning image-detection model, which detects COVID-19 in 15 seconds. Meanwhile, vaccine development is well underway.
Company supply chains are also adapting in a manner reminiscent of World War II, when factories were repurposed to build war supplies. For example, the luxury goods company LVMH converted its perfume factory to produce hand sanitizer for France’s healthcare sector last month. Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn has started making masks. Fashion designers have temporarily pivoted from evening gowns to medical gowns, and automakers are in discussions with governments to make ventilators. Engineers are using 3D printers to create plastic shields for healthcare workers. The list goes on and on. These individuals and organizations are rising to action to do their part.
To keep the world running, supermarkets and logistics services have developed safety protocols to protect their employees and customers. Restaurants have come up with ways to ensure at-risk communities still have access to food. Educators have created online classrooms in a matter of days. Information resources to educate the public and track the spread of the virus using big data sprang up seemingly overnight. Finally, those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that allow us to work from home are learning the full potential of the communication technologies that the 21st century has bestowed upon us. None of these tasks have been easy, but individuals and organizations have demonstrated the motivation and mind shifts needed to research, innovate, and act quickly.
2) There is an increased focus on empathy and solving real-world problems
As an entrepreneurship professor, I meet lots of aspiring entrepreneurs. While incremental improvements to existing business models are of course beneficial, I am most excited when I work with entrepreneurs who are attempting to tackle the real problems facing our society. Devastating situations like the COVID-19 crisis highlight issues such as inequality in access to healthcare, food insecurity, and homelessness, both globally and in our local communities. For most people reading this, staying at home is an inconvenience, but these times are likely far more challenging for those less fortunate.
With COVID-19, we are seeing innovations emerging based on empathy for those around us. Organizations in multiple sectors are applying concepts such as design thinking, systems thinking, and lean startup to use their human capital to problem-solve quickly. This demonstrated effort suggests that in the future, other big real-world challenges could also be tackled with a sense of urgency through innovation. I do not doubt that if we maintain this focus on customers and real-world issues, we will start to see better products on the market and live in a better society.
3) We need to—and can—collaborate for change
Complex problem-solving is not easy. A diversity of skills and knowledge is essential to creating big solutions. While globalization helped spread the virus, co-creation with others around the world can help solve this crisis. We are fortunate to live in a time when the Internet is available to facilitate collaboration initiatives.
For example, experts around the world have collectively responded by providing open access to research findings on the virus. The Open Source Ventilator community out of Ireland has been working with engineers, designers, and medical practitioners globally to develop low-cost, open-source ventilator designs. StartupBlink, a startup ecosystem, has developed a Coronavirus Innovation Map to share initiatives created in response to the COVID-19 crisis. More locally, the autonomous community of Madrid is inviting the public to a community-wide hackathon towards combatting the virus. It is inspiring to see collaboration emerging and learn what these ecosystems have accomplished in such a short time.
Works in progress
In these challenging times, the way in which individuals and organizations have sprung to action with a clear sense of priority, urgency, and community over the past few weeks gives me hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
Are these initiatives perfect? No, they are works in progress, like all startups. However, through collective effort, targeted innovation initiatives are starting and growing at an unprecedented pace.
These efforts suggest that innovators have the capabilities to mobilize for collaboration, experiment quickly, and implement solutions. Not only am I optimistic that this challenging time will pass, I believe it suggests that we, as a society, have the attitudes and mindsets to tackle significant challenges. Hopefully, we can continue to drive innovation for our collective well-being long after this crisis is over.