Will Coronavirus Stifle Innovation?

We humans are always looking to develop, to improve, to innovate. Perhaps it’s in our genes. After all, Darwinian survival of the fittest instincts have left us with the never-ending feeling of dissatisfaction. So, as a species we can’t be really be blamed for always pushing ourselves to do better.

Innovation is all about changing things for the better. Improving a system, creating a new product, or altering a mindset. It’s about making electric cars the future of travel. It’s about allowing the masses to experience life in outer space. It’s even about reinventing classic dishes like fish and chips.

As a society we are obsessed with the latest trend, the most cutting-edge technology, the newest way of thinking

As a society we are obsessed with the latest trend, the most cutting-edge technology, the newest way of thinking. The buzz and hype surrounding every release of the next iPhone sees avid fans queuing up for hours outside apple stores to be the first to get their hands on these innovative pieces of tech. But surely there comes a point when innovating for the sake of innovating means we are in fact no longer innovating? I mean how many incremental changes can apple really make; do we really need our phones to last 48 hours between charges?

So, at a time when we as a human race have perhaps begun to lose sight of what is really important in life, in rolls COVID-19. This devastating virus has virtually affected and stopped most of the world, forcing us to retreat into our homes while being confined to a strict 2m distance from other fellow humans if we venture out. The press has dutifully reported on its negative effects, but I’d like to offer a more positive outlook.

Setting the direction is the key to producing relevant innovation

Life as we knew it before has come to a slight pause and for those not in the heroic essential services it gives us a buffer. It’s a time we should use wisely to think about what we value most in life. Innovation is only innovative if it’s a change we’re making that moves us in the direction we’re aiming for. Otherwise it’s just change. Setting the direction is the key to producing relevant innovation. So, we shouldn’t see corona as stopping or even hindering innovation. We should view it as preventing unnecessary innovation from continuing and taking place. This time enables us to think, as a collective, about how we would like to innovate in the future and the real reasons behind our innovations.

We’ve seen such a strong sense of unity over the past few months and businesses coming together to help tackle this pandemic. Mercedes with the help of UCL, for example, swapped manufacturing car parts to producing CPAP devices to relieve demand on limited ventilators. Whilst many fashion brands like, Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, have switched to producing hand sanitisers. Looking forwards, could these collaborative forms of business practice become commonplace?

Would these developments have happened without it? Who knows, but they could prove beneficial to all of us in the long-run.

As corona forced many Universities like ours to switch to online teaching, we’ve seen technology systems become more advanced in order to cope with this. Similarly, the Government and the media, alongside other businesses, have swiftly moved to using more virtual means of communication. The NHS has also had to reorganise their outdated internal structures and technology systems to deal more efficiently with the effects of the virus. These are all forms of innovation that COVID-19 has caused us to adopt. Would these developments have happened without it? Who knows, but they could prove beneficial to all of us in the long run.

Speaking to my parents about working from home and comparing their views with mine, I would say all of us miss interacting with our friends and colleagues. But we have also learnt to appreciate the slow pace of our lockdown lives: making bread, planting seeds or taking a week to finish a 2-hour lecture.

Our previous fast-paced lives meant we took so many of these simple things for granted. Caught up in work, deadlines and life we forgot to appreciate the people around us and natural world we live in. So, perhaps once this is all over, we will innovate to ensure these treasured aspects of our existence have an integral place in our lives. Whether it’s having a Come Dine With Me-esque competition with your mates or whether it’s companies enforcing a mandatory hour a week for company board games – I mean what’s a better way to clear your head than by watching your 6ft 2, slightly plump boss playing a round of twister?

It is down to all of us to envisage the world we want to live in

I can write this because I’m in a very fortunate position being largely unaffected by the virus apart from the lockdown restrictions. Many of us, as students, are not in the vulnerable category and as the generation who will be most affected by the events of these past few months, we must take responsibility for the future. It is down to all of us to envisage the world we want to live in; the direction in which innovation can then follow. We’re at a turning point and we have a choice to make: to return to how we lived before, where we took for granted the resources and people surrounding us. Or to hold on to these core values lockdown has allowed us to rediscover and lead our lives with these at the centre.

Wow that turned into a very deep and heavy little article. So take a look at my sketches for some innovative ways (debatable) to use all those toilet rolls you have piled up somewhere…..

Natasha Phang-Lee

Featured image courtesy of Robert Occhialini via Flickr. No changes made to this image. Image license found here

In-article image courtesy of Natasha Phang-Lee. No changes were made to this image. 

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