With unprecedented challenges come unexpected opportunities.
Under normal circumstances, there’s a balance to strike in navigating and regulating the risks and rewards of innovative solutions. The world expends an enormous amount of energy on assessing the potential outcomes. Policymakers have to be sure before giving something the go-ahead.
In general, this system and approach are very good things that keep the public safe. It’s undeniable, though, that those same things do a lot to hold back progress, speed, and boldness. But things have changed a lot over the past few weeks.
In times of crisis, people use the tools they have lying around. There’s simply no time to seek approval or invent something new.
Moves that once would have taken months of consideration, analysis, discussion and argument are being decided on in split seconds. When it’s life or death, economic ruin or survival, whether kids keep learning or not — well, pursuing the unknown is suddenly worth it.
In the global health crisis we find ourselves living in, this approach is accelerating the adoption, application and acceptance of existing innovations. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Remote work wins
The world has been thrown into the biggest experiment in remote work that’s ever taken place over the past few weeks. It happened with pretty much no warning. First in China, Japan and Korea, now in Europe and parts of the United States, and rolling out to locations near you sooner than you might think.
While the circumstances aren’t ideal, bosses and companies that would have happily continued ignoring the potential of flexible work are now forced to bet their whole organisations on it. There are sure to be some tears along the way, but ultimately, this will mark the beginning of a new status quo.
Virtual learning has fast become an accepted necessity too. Lockdown measures like school closures and social distancing are expected to last months. If nothing was done, an entire generation could miss out on portions of their education. Luckily, though, we already have the tools and expertise needed to deliver school remotely.
It’s taken a global health crisis for us to create public-private partnerships for delivery and actually start experimenting with what’s possible, but education’s long overdue reboot may have finally started — and it could change learning norms forever.
Free money for Americans
Sometimes the right policy solutions already exist, but there’s no popular support for them until the problem they’re solving becomes a mainstream issue. Today, the United States is on the verge of implementing a universal basic income of $1,000 per month for its citizens.
If you’d told me when the year started that a move like that could happen before the end of Q1, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. With the prospect of millions of Americans out of work thanks to coronavirus, the argument for basic income has never been stronger, more convincing or more relevant.
Rapid, collaborative tech regs
Meanwhile, governments and tech platforms all over the world have stopped their bickering and started working together to create effective policies that combat fake news. It benefits nobody for people to be receiving the wrong information during a global health crisis.
The power struggle between public and private players over the nature and scope of regulation has been largely set aside for now. It’s been replaced by a focus on what can be done to have an immediate impact instead. If only regulation could always be handled that way.
3D printing normalised?
It’s not easy getting approvals and deals in place to bring future tech into healthcare settings. The process takes a long time, and the people involved take a lot of convincing. Not in the time of coronavirus.
In Italy, medical resources are already under severe strain. So when a Brescia hospital ran out of respirator valves to treat coronavirus patients, a collaborative team of manufacturers, designers and technologists from the local area stepped in. They worked together to redesign the relevant component and begin 3D printing them on-site for healthcare workers to use immediately.
Consumer drone technology has been ready to go mainstream for some time now, but a lack of government guidance means that the sector has essentially been put on indefinite hiatus. In the global battle against coronavirus, however, reducing human-to-human contact is crucial for avoiding community transmission.
In China already (and presumably elsewhere soon), the coronavirus crisis has finally given drone delivery the jump-start it needs to become an everyday reality. Well, if you put surveillance issues and spooked investors aside for the moment.
Coronavirus is far from a good thing; it’s the plot of a disaster movie. But if we can make it through to the other side of this thing without total societal breakdown, we should all take an important lesson from the experience: Often, the innovations we need are already here. We just need the impetus and support to implement them.