Everywhere we look, people are adjusting their behaviour, their businesses, their priorities and their mindsets. Globally, we have entered into unprecedented economic shutdown, social distancing and restrictions on global movement as we attempt to minimise the lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic. Adversity challenges us to innovate: to develop novel, value-adding responses to new circumstances. As we adjust our rhythms to a new world order it’s becoming increasingly important that we think about innovation not as a response required in the short-term to COVID-19, but as a response imperative to our future beyond COVID-19. Though few things in life are certain, change is. And the world is changing and will be required to change when we emerge from the pandemic, in such a profound manner that ‘business as usual’ will be relegated to the history books.
To the entrepreneurs, the change-makers and the brave decision-makers out there, we need your radical ideas in these unparalleled times.
So far, visible innovation has manifested mostly in the way we are responding to change. We are now harnessing underutilised methods we have had at our disposal for decades: open-source R&D collaboration; rapid technology adoption, and; the mobilisation of collective action. While it may be tempting to hunker down and wait for COVID-19 to roll over us, we know that innovation thrives in adversity. So let’s get moving.
Companies that last year reported billion-dollar revenues like General Electric (1892), General Motors (1908) and IBM (1911) began in the turmoil of economic downturn and consumer panic. The Great Depression gave rise to Disney (1929), while the 1958 Recession proved a successful launchpad for Hyatt (1957). Google (1998), Salesforce (1999) and Facebook (2004) were each pioneered just prior to various economic meltdowns but had the courage to persevere and build empires out the other side. Similarly, Australia has historically punched above its weight in terms of invention with black box flight recorders, medical penicillin, the pacemaker, google maps and even wifi. Our relative isolation, supply chain restriction and culture of curiosity have historically served us well.
What plausible advantages does the adversity we are currently facing bring?
Open source R&D collaboration
The knowledge economy has received much-needed investment in the form of open-source collaboration with government, industry and education institutions working together. New channels of information sharing have been activated by some of the globe’s leaders: MIT Sloan professors have convened to rapidly develop, vet, and deliver policy proposals for use by state and federal governments under the COVID-19 Policy Alliance. Africa’s innovation incubator, CcHub, is offering funding and engineering support to COVID-19 tech projects aimed at curbing social and economic impact. The Australian government has put a call out to businesses for expressions of interest to supply swabs for COVID-19 testing. Canada’s Plan to Mobilize Industry activates businesses to rapidly scale up production or re-tool their manufacturing lines to develop products in the fight against COVID-19. We’ve needed this cross-sector collaboration for a long time.
While typically, bureaucracy gets in the way of lean and agile innovation, red tape is being cut to fast-track novel solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Yesterday, Australia’s Federal Government has partnered with Australian software giant Atlassian and Facebook to unveil two new information services for people to receive official COVID-19 updates. The Singaporean Government has made its tracing software freely available to developers worldwide. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has released all medical research articles in machine-readable form. MyGov India has opened a crowd-sourcing COVID-19 challenge to the tech community. Italian engineers at startup Issinova built a prototype at pace to reverse engineer 3-D printing of respirator venturi valves. Another one to watch: the new Australian Space Agency is collaborating with NASA in a ‘grand challenge’ to develop the best open-source design for a rapidly producible ventilator.
At the University of Queensland, scientists and researchers are working around the clock to develop a coronavirus vaccine. With a combined $16.5 million in funding, the University of Queensland along with its research partners, The Doherty Institute and CSIRO, are promoting innovation beyond their science. Collectively with big pharma companies and government policy, they are dismantling the traditional linear pipeline of vaccine development based on plotted milestone checkpoints. Instead, they are working to a parallel model, simultaneously stacking development phases for a far shorter delivery timeline.
At a policy-innovation level, we need creative strategies for two economies of scale – emotional shock and the shock of job loss. While the Australian government is pulling the traditional fiscal policy levers in an attempt to minimise economic ramifications that many have already described as being markedly worse than the GFC (IMF), what would true policy innovation look like? A global living wage for example? A redesign of the way government does business to be leaner, more agile, and citizen-centric? Or even more radically, a new approach to the disconnect in decision-making between the Federal Government and the States? While these ideas may not prove viable, discussions and debates of this nature would surely prove fruitful.
Social license and ethical investment to redefine the role of business
In living memory, there has never been a time where the link between business sustainability and social/environmental responsibility has been clearer. In response, we see businesses reinventing their role in society. Zara has started to make scrubs for Spain’s coronavirus stretched hospitals. Lululemon temporarily shuts down all stores in North America but continues to pay employees. Microsoft commits to pay its hourly workers their regular pay, even as demand for their services slows. Walmart, Apple, and the Olive Garden update their sick-leave policies to provide additional coverage and support for their most vulnerable workers. Amazon announced a $5 million relief fund for small businesses in the vicinity of its headquarters. While Google is pledging $1 million to organisations locally in California impacted by the pandemic. In Australia, companies like Telstra take a multi-stakeholder approach, issuing a hold on planned job reductions, providing assistance packages to consumer and small business customers, activating provision of unlimited data allowances, providing extra mobile data for small business customers and extra paid leave for Telstra employees and casuals.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see examples of less-than-ethical business practices. Four industry super funds with combined assets of more than $180 billion are potentially invoking pandemic exclusion clauses which could see members not covered for adverse effects suffered due to coronavirus. Kathmandu is another disappointing example. As an entity recording an after-tax profit of $57.6m, Kathmandu has chosen to stand down most of its staff without pay for the next four weeks. Many other businesses are standing down or making redundant thousands of employees across Australia this week. So, where is the innovation in such negative examples? Hopefully, the innovation will be a new yardstick for corporate social responsibility. Consistent with belief-driven buyers featuring as a trend in Edelman’s 2018/19 reports, it is no longer about what companies preach when the sea is calm, it’s about the stuff they are made of when times are challenging or political.
Rapid technology adoption pushes creativity within communication
As humans, our ability to cope with trauma depends largely on how we integrate the experience into a narrative. Consistent messaging in crises plays a key role in obtaining the public’s trust and co-operation. Politicians are innovating communication strategies to level with their people. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, conducted a press conference purely to answer questions from kids. Jacinda Ardern live-streamed New Zealanders on Facebook in her trackies (apologising that putting toddlers to bed is a messy business) before answering questions coming in on the live feed. Boris Johnson took to twitter immediately upon being diagnosed with coronavirus to reassure Brits and urge them to follow the recommended measures. South Korean President Moon Jae-in communicated coronavirus information early and consistently to inspire a “wartime sense of purpose”, enabling public ‘sense-making’ to occur. Each of these examples represents a willingness to innovate new responses, to use existing tools for new measures.
As #WFH becomes an acronym rapidly transforming our working lives, companies producing collaborative software solutions are reporting skyrocketing growth. The publicly traded Zoom conferencing platform has seen stocks rise, downloaded over 50 million times in recent weeks. While Fardad Zabetian, founder of the multilingual web conferencing platform Kudo estimates his business has increased 400% since COVID-19 began to spread. Microsoft’s Teams now has more than 44 million daily users, growing by about 12 million users in just seven days. Slack co-founder, and CEO Stewart Butterfield said Slack is developing voice technology to integrate with Teams. Once completed, Slack users will be able to make calls directly to Teams users without leaving the platform. The innovation we need to see though, as governments, education institutions and businesses scramble to take their operations online, are new methods of privacy, security and information protection. Governance, as so often the case, is already lagging behind civic reliance.
While the plethora of examples of technology adoption do not represent innovative new products as such, our fresh ability to harness technological innovation provides the opportunity for new product testing. For years, we have espoused “whole-of-self”, “flexible work practices” and “work-life integration.” Covid-19 has forced employers and employees alike to meet halfway on the benefits and challenges of remote working. Tolerance for flexible work schedules by employers is being met by greater productivity accountability on the part of employees. Already embedded tools surely have scope to innovate productivity measures enabling data for performance reviews. A new exposure of the messy realities of our home-lives (kids, dogs and washing featuring behind us in zoom windows) has been met with an escalation of downloadable virtual conferencing backgrounds. Though strangely, these intimate insights into the lives of our co-workers do not seem to inspire judgment. Instead, this collective challenge is causing us to be more inclusive. Wouldn’t it be great if this empathy lasted longer than the virus isolation period?
Mental Health is emerging as a key driver of new communication methods. Salesforce found 36 percent of the workforce were experiencing mental health challenges as a result of COVID-19. “And those are the ones who are willing to admit it,” says Marc Benioff, chief executive and co-founder. “We’re starting a daily mental health call, to encourage daily prayer meditation and mindfulness.”
In Australia, organisations like Beyond Blue, headspace and Black Dog Institute have been on the front foot, going digital and deep with openly available mental health tools and self-care strategies. Global agencies have integrated mental health considerations within their public response, as explained by Aiysha Malik, a Technical Officer at the World Health Organization’s Mental Health and Substance Use Department in a live-streamed Q&A session this week. Some mental health apps are offering extended services such as talkspace, now including a Covid anxiety management program free to subscribers. But as social video app downloads explode around the world, where are the innovations with regards to, say, digital consumption alerts, collective habit-building facilitation, or group exercising apps? Could companies partner with mental health programs and startup developers to develop new products to tackle isolation and loneliness, beyond EAP?
Mobilisation of the collective
Communities have been fast to innovate new ways to connect emotionally. Italy kicked off a counter-viral COVID-19 attack on social with #ItalyStayStrong visuals of people singing from their balconies spread across Europe and the world. The #ApplauseForMedicalWorkers hashtag has also captured public sentiment globally as communities realise the sacrifice front-line public servants are making for the collective good. Many small businesses such as yoga studios are taking their offering online and reducing subscription or offering free sessions. Organisations, membership groups and friendship circles alike are implementing virtual chats, drinks, dinner parties (where a common recipe is sent around) and even Facebook dance parties (fancy dress non-optional!).
Leadership is also taking on a new form within families, neighbourhoods and communities. Grandparents are zooming grandkids to help teach reading, maths and craft. Neighbours are leaving notes in letterboxes offering to help buy groceries for medications those more vulnerable. Communities are paying it forward to local small businesses and entrepreneurs, buying coffees, meals, classes and artisan wares in advance to keep them afloat for the future. In Australia, CEOs of supermarkets have created special community hours dedicated to elderly people and healthcare workers. It seems a broader model is developing for distributed kindness, linked possibly to a new understanding of the benefits of distributed wealth. In times of uncertainty, trust becomes the currency we all rely upon.
There is so much inspiration to be drawn from COVID-19. Not least, the innovation of how we connect our ‘me’ narrative to our ‘we’ narrative. Companies, entrepreneurs, idea-generators and everyone in between. We have entered a moment in time where the rules are changing, our needs are shifting, new behaviours are emerging. There has never been a better time to bring lean, agile, scalable ideas to the fore. As individuals, if we can change our own deepest, most innate habits, expectations, entitlements and biases, then as a group we can change anything.
Including the outcome of #COVID-19.