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An era of innovation after Covid-19

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – Plato

Social media is flooded with pictures of healthcare workers from various hospitals in Luzon wearing and using makeshift personal protective equipment (PPE) after supplies had run out. Scientists from the University of the Philippines have developed a coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) test kit that is cheaper and faster to deliver.

This is the nature of invention and innovation: when the need for something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it. Organizations with more resources are well-placed to innovate on even bigger things to address our dire situation now. For example, Chinese technology firm Huawei developed an artificial intelligence-powered CT scan analyzer to help detect possible transmissions of the coronavirus, which is being set up at the Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center. Another example is Italian 3D-printing startup Isinnova, which saved the lives of 10 Covid 19 patients after developing a replacement ventilator valve when supplies at one hospital ran dry.

In the United States, tech giants such as Amazon, IBM, Google and Microsoft partnered with the White House to provide computing resources for Covid-19 research. Meanwhile, open-source software and data-sharing among scientists all over the world are making the development of a vaccine possible in the next few months. While we’re seeing innovation accelerating across the globe because of an urgent necessity, the level of innovation that would happen after Covid-19 is expected to be unprecedented, given the advancements in computing and biotechnology. Historical accounts of global crises have proven time and again that an era of innovation would indeed arrive.

For example, during England’s Great Plague, which killed 100,000 people between 1665 and 1666, Isaac Newton had to work from home. That period was the most productive in his life, during which he developed his theories on calculus, optics and gravity, providing the groundwork for future innovations.

The years and decades following this plague was marked by discoveries and innovations in medicine, biology and physics. In 1700, Nicolas Andry published his pioneering work on the germ theory of disease, leading to mankind’s understanding on how illnesses occur. The so-called Long Depression in the US — which ran from 1873 and 1896 — saw a host of inventions: the incandescent bulb, radio, steam turbine and refrigeration.

The US Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1939, may be remembered as the greatest economic downturn that country has ever experienced. By 1933, approximately 25 percent of the US population was unemployed. But this grim period is also considered a technological golden age, as the radio, automobile, aviation, telephone and the electric power transmission grid were further developed, deployed and adopted.

The years after World War 2 were also marked by innovation, since much of the technology employed during that war continued to be used. Notable inventions during this time are pressurized cabins, jet engines, synthetic rubber and oil, radio and landing navigation, radar, penicillin, and nuclear power.

Fast forward to the 21st century, specifically to the Dotcom crash of 2001, which forced a lot of tech firms to lay off scores of employees. That crash provided much impetus for other tech companies, like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, to innovate and grow. These digital firms were given a big boost when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was recognized as a global threat in March 2003 after first appearing in southern China in November 2002, forcing consumers to go online. This even led to the emergence of innovative tech firms in China, led by electronic commerce and telecommunications companies, such as Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei, which took advantage of Chinese consumers’ desire to conduct their lives online to avoid the deadly virus.

Then the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 came, caused by the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. This led to financial services companies going belly-up and the eventual loss of consumer confidence in the financial system. This was when Satoshi Nakamoto established bitcoin in 2008, leading to innovations in cryptocurrency and blockchain.

These historical accounts prove the age-old adage that “behind every crisis, lies opportunities” and opportunity manifests itself in the form of innovations. Famed economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to crises as “seedbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship.” As a treatise in The Atlantic put it: “Innovations developed during crises generate the gales of creative destruction that launch new technologies, remake existing industries, and give birth to entirely new ones — setting in motion new rounds of economic growth.”

Indeed, we are experiencing difficult times now. But expect an era of glorious innovations after the storm in the areas of computing, biotechnology and material science. Innovation will triumph over Covid-19. We are already seeing the signs now. The question is: What are you going to do about this?

The author is the chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is also the country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia and fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University.

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Originally published at The Manila Times

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