April 14, 2020

Innovation in a crisis

Like many countries, New Zealand is under lockdown to try to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on our population. Everyone has had to change their way of life. With schools closed, children are at home all day, every day. Many businesses have had to close altogether, leaving employees out of work, while others are trying as best they can to keep operating with staff working remotely.

The full impact of the crisis is still to be seen but it is certain that, at the least, further disruption will occur, and potentially significant levels of personal tragedy. These are truly difficult and unprecedented times.

As society comes to terms with life under lockdown and considers how we will live and work when we finally emerge on the other side, one thing appears clear: change is inevitable. The threat of a global pandemic has long been known about but, now that one has hit on the scale of COVID-19, there will be changes in the way we live, work and how we maintain our economies in an attempt to make our society more resilient to similar events in the future. There will also be changes to try and aid the economic and social recovery from this catastrophe.

In other words, there will be innovation.

Times of great struggle are often times of great innovation

Times of strife have historically been catalysts for innovation. We’ve seen this during war-time, for example. Modern plastic surgery radically improved during World War One through work by Sir Harold Gillies, a New Zealand otolaryngologist working in London. Presented with soldiers bearing disfiguring facial injuries, Gillies and his team established a dedicated hospital where many of the techniques of modern facial surgery were developed.

The process of creating fertiliser by converting nitrogen to ammonia was also developed during World War One, although by accident. Two German scientists initially invented the process to create military explosives, but it was later used as the basis for industrial fertiliser which is widely used today in food production across the world.

This pattern of innovating in the face of hardship has been seen time and time again over the course of history, and its not just limited to wartime; recessions have generated significant innovation as businesses look for ways to generate new business.

Developments in healthcare in response to COVID-19

It is too early to say exactly what innovations will occur as a result of the pandemic, but it is obvious that there will be significant social, economic, business and technological changes.

Some types of innovation will be direct responses to the pandemic itself. Already, a huge amount of R&D effort is going into developing treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19. The crisis will only be truly resolved once an effective way to stop the virus has been developed, so the amount of effort striving for this breakthrough is enormous. The sheer amount of R&D is likely to result in, not just a way to counter COVID-19, but other epidemiological and pharmaceutical advancements that would not have occurred in the same timeframe otherwise.

We can expect to see other healthcare innovations in ventilation, respiratory care and other medical fields. Due to the demand for ventilators, face masks and virus tests some of these innovations may be methods of manufacturing or distributing these devices more efficiently, while others will improve the devices themselves.

COVID-19 will trigger other innovation

There will be huge amounts of business innovation. Whole industries are figuring out how to stay operational while their staff and customers stay at home. Although this state of affairs won’t continue indefinitely, there is a clear short-term need for innovation, which will likely lead to businesses adopting practices that make them more resilient to future occurrences of a similar nature. Every industry and every business will innovate differently, but we are sure to see many new and improved processes and products that will remain long after the crisis has ended.

For example, the huge demand for remote communication services like video conferencing will inevitably result in improvements in the technology that enables these services. While these services are already very effective and have been utilised widely during the crisis so far, there are bound to be further improvements in all aspects of this technology, from the end-user software to the communication protocols governing transmission of data to the underlying infrastructure itself.

Many new practices are likely to be introduced that will enable more businesses to cope with lockdowns should they occur in the future. And it is highly likely that more lockdowns will occur; not only if we are faced with a similar scale pandemic but, in the next instance of a new epidemic, countries are likely to enter lockdown much earlier to prevent it escalating.

Taking the opportunity when life gives you lemons

These predicted developments mean there is great opportunity for businesses to position themselves effectively, both now and in the future.

Innovation leads to the generation of intellectual property (IP) and the opportunity to secure legal IP rights. Leading the way in securing such rights could give a business a significant competitive advantage in the future. If a business develops a new product or process that gives it an advantage over its competitors as the world faces life post-COVID-19, or when faced with a future lockdown, the ability to secure protection for that development through IP rights could be hugely significant. Where companies are able to obtain a competitive advantage in this way, we may see major changes in the competitive landscape in many industries.

The crisis caused by COVID-19 is far from over, and the worst may be yet to come. Nevertheless, it is natural to think about what will happen at the end of the lockdown and after the crisis has abated. Given the scale of personal loss that are facing many parts of the world, and may yet be faced in New Zealand, it may be trite and insensitive to think about silver linings. But, in the competitive landscape in which businesses operate, it is never too early to think about the future and how best to position your business for a resilient and successful future.

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