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Monday, March 16, 2020

Where Innovation Meets the Coronavirus Pandemic

Photo by Severin Höin on Unsplash
As our social media feeds and news outlets fill up with coronavirus information and Covid19 infection updates, it is hard to escape the ticker tape of information. But it is good to remember that this event we are going through is not new to humanity (Check out this Visual Capitalist Infographic to see the History of Pandemics globally.). 

It is also important to realize that events like this tend to be catalytic moments for humanity. I don't know about you, but I saw multiple people posting about the various ideas and inventions past famous people created while quarantined away during various pandemics. So I went investigating. Two innovations caught my attention. Sir Issac Newton was away from Cambridge for a quarantine during the plague that hit England in 1665 and during that time developed some of the early thinking behind both calculus and the Theory of Gravity. Likewise, James Franklin, the brother of Benjamin, helped launch the newspaper industry in 1721 as he shared his opinions in popularized publications during a smallpox outbreak in Boston. His publication became one of the first independent US newspapers. 

Adversity and disequilibrium create dissonance and cause people to respond. Partly the momentum comes from a desire to regain control and to solve obvious problems that the tragedy has uncovered. But usually, the momentum for these changes and the underlying thinking has already been there. The tragedy simply speeds up realization and adoption. 

I do not take this pandemic lightly and this post is not meant to be opportunistic. Instead it is both a recognition of a historical reality and a challenge that we need to hear. First, we must recognize that these events catalyze change and change births innovation. Second, we should recognize that there are several challenges we face in harnessing the current situation and seeking to bring good out of what was meant for evil. 

  1. Never before have we been so overloaded with information and and distraction. Each of us could look at our social media and news apps all day long and receive a steady stream of information which would leave us with little time to do the evaluating, reassessing and creating that this moment affords us. 
  2. Unlike many of the great thinkers who innovated during pandemics, today we live with little margin. Newton likely didn't have kids running around his desk as he worked on the concept of calculus. Franklin probably wasn't balancing four video conference calls each day with loads of laundry and meals in between. Our lifestyle focuses us on maintaining so many built up expectations that we will miss the opportunity to create. 
  3. The high levels of distraction and the low levels of margin are sapping us of joy. With each news story we become more panicked and anxious. So instead of investing in relationships and creating things of value for the world, we stand in line at stores to buy toilet paper we don't need. In the end, we are letting our worry about losing control overtake our joy in experiencing the moment and learning from it. 
With that challenge in mind, what are a few areas where there is momentum and energy given the events of the day. Consider these and what you might do to add value in them:
  • Never has there been a time where more people, speaking more local languages needed similar clear, concise and localized content about how to deal with this global threat. The opportunities for advances in crowdsourced translation, machine assisted translation, artificial intelligence, voice tech and other areas in support of people and the languages they speak has never been greater. 
  • The world was already moving to virtual meetings and work from home (WFH), but the events of the past weeks are accelerating that in a dramatic way. What are innovations in online meeting and distributed work that might be significant?
  • The global travel industry is reeling from the impacts of coronavirus travel bans, event cancelations and reductions in tourism. How will global travel have to change and adapt? What are the implications for the climate change discussions and the momentum away from air travel towards lower carbon travel options? 
  • With hundreds of millions of children and university students having to learn remotely, how might that experience be enhanced and that learning be improved? What innovations need to be created in order to better educate all children globally?
  • Quarantine and social distancing is forcing people to rethink what they consider to be healthy living conditions and how they relate to those who live around them. Just as the mid 20th Century saw innovations in city planning that led to the suburbs, what new innovations do we need to consider in how we plan for a mostly urban future? 
  • We were seeing wonderful momentum towards more sustainable living through reuse and recycling. However, in a pandemic control over germs through sealed, individualized and sterilized consumption is pushing us back towards the items we were getting rid of. There is a huge opportunity to ask ourselves, how can we live sustainably and also manage the spread of disease. 
These are only a few areas that our world needs you working on. You might think of many others. Whether you work on something in this list is not the point. The key message is that each of us has to decide what we will do with this moment? Will scan, obsess and loose heart or will we trust God, seek joy and create something new to bless the world. 

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