“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – Plato
Social media is flooded with pictures of health care workers from various hospitals in Luzon who are wearing and using makeshift personal protective equipment (PPE) as supplies had run out. In the same token, scientists from the University of the Philippines developed a locally-made COVID-19 test kit which is cheaper and faster to deliver.
This is the nature of inventions and innovation, such that, 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. For instance, Chinese tech 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 start-up Isinnova has saved the lives of ten COVID-19 patients after developing a replacement ventilator valve when supplies at one hospital ran dry.
In the US, tech giants such as Amazon, IBM, Google, and Microsoft partner with the White House to provide compute resources for COVID-19 research. In the same fashion, open source software and data sharing among scientists all over the world are making the development of the vaccine within reach in the coming few months.
While we’re seeing the acceleration of innovation across the globe because of an urgent necessity, the level of innovation that will happen after COVID-19 will be unprecedented, given the advancements in computing and biotechnology; and slew of historical accounts of global crises has proven time and again that indeed an era of innovation will ensue.
For example, during the Great Plague in England which from 1665 to 1666 killing 100,000 in eighteen months, Isaac Newton had to work from home. It was the most productive period of his life, when he developed his theories on calculus, optics, and gravity, providing the groundwork for the ensuing innovations.
The decades following this plague was rife with discoveries and innovations in medicine, biology, and physics. For one, in 1700, Nicolas Andry published his pioneering work on germ theory of disease, leading to mankind’s understanding on how illnesses happen.
In another period between the years 1873 and 1896, branded as the Long Depression in the US, marked a host of inventions – the incandescent bulb, the radio by, steam turbine, and refrigeration.
On the other hand, the Great Depression which beset America from 1929 to 1939 and is remembered as the greatest economic downturn the country has ever seen. By 1933 approximately 25% of the entire population was unemployed. But it was a technological golden age, as innovations such as the radio, automobile, aviation, telephone, and the electric power transmission grid were deployed and adopted.
The years following World War II were also characteristically an era of innovation, using much of the technology during the war. Notable inventions during this period are pressurized cabins, jet engine, synthetic rubber and oil, radio and landing navigation, radar, penicillin, and nuclear power.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, the dot-com crash of 2001, left a lot of tech firms wounded with massive lay-offs. But it provided much impetus for tech companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon to innovate and grow. These digital tech firms were further 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, which forced consumers to move online. In fact, this even lead to the growth of innovative tech firms in China, led by ecommerce and telecom companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei, taking advantage of the Chinese consumers’ desire to conduct their lives online to avoid the deadly virus.
Then the global financial crisis of 2007-08 came, caused by the subprime mortgage crisis. This led to financial services companies going bell-up and the eventual loss of consumer confidence in the financial system. This was when Satoshi Nakamoto founded 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. Famous economist Joseph Schumpeter, referred to crises as “seedbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship”. ‘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”, as a treatise in The Atlantic put it.
Indeed, we are in 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?
This article originally published in Manila Times, March 26, 2020
Reynaldo Lugtu Jr is Co-Founder and CEO of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. And has engaged with several companies and organizations on digital transformation and innovation.
He is a digital and culture transformation thought & action leader, a sought-after public speaker, and an accomplished educator, author, business columnist, and innovation coach. And is a business columnist and writer for Manila Times, Manila Bulletin, and Business World.
Ray is the Country Representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia (ICTPA). He is also Professorial Lecturer in the MBA program of De La Salle University and Lecturer on Digital Transformation, Leadership and Management in the Benilde – School of Professional and Continuing Education.