When innovation wins

August 12, 2020

During the 1950s, almost 70 years back, industrial growth seemed to be enjoying a peak. Commercial airlines’ popularity because of improved air traffic control systems, safer motorized...

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During the 1950s, almost 70 years back, industrial growth seemed to be enjoying a peak. Commercial airlines’ popularity because of improved air traffic control systems, safer motorized automobiles, pilotless drones, radar technology, and surveillance systems are just a few examples of that period.

However, it is noteworthy that those technological advances were mainly a byproduct of the innovations and developments that had started during the world wars, considered to be one of the darkest periods in recorded human history given the tremendous loss of lives and property.

The tragic narratives of those times indicate the extent to which humanity can stoop. But, despite all that, there were spectacularly creative and innovative outcomes arising in such senseless mayhem. Hence, what humans are capable of creating and innovating during difficult times, shows that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Considering historically difficult times in general, the current Covid-19 pandemic, although not a world war, perhaps represents the most prominent crisis in recent human history. To date, although just a few months long, it has already stretched individuals and communities to their limits and gone beyond. We have seen how massively challenging it has been for governments and businesses around the globe. The novel coronavirus has exposed the flaws in our routine day-to-day systems and operations.

From problems in supply chains to the execution of simple healthcare delivery, as just two cases in point, every part of every process has been laid bare and questioned. Whereas smaller organizations may be facing immediate shutdowns, some larger ones shall also be following suit, given the imminent economic collapse. At the population or public health level, there is uncertainty among governments especially those of Low- Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) whether lockdowns are the approach to take versus easing the economy. The fundamental, albeit harsh, question for LMICs perhaps is: do we let people die of virus or hunger?

Although the situation seems to be grim for the most part, not all news coming out of this pandemic is bad. Amidst the uncertainty, we can remain hopeful that most people with Covid-19 shall recover just fine. Our children, representing the future of the human race, seem to be affected less severely; the internet still exists; not all businesses are dying – in fact, some e-commerce is showing growth; online learning has become more entrenched in our processes; last but not least, from small businesses to large corporations – all are attempting to be flexible as an adaptation to the new normal.

We have examples of Google and Facebook promoting remote work to leverage most out of that scenario, whereas others like Twitter and Square are suggesting that their employees will be able to work from home even after the Covid-19 crisis ends. Through these examples, we realize how large organizations can swiftly bypass bureaucracy when needed to achieve immediate objectives. We too have been playing our part in innovating the future.

One initiative of ours in particular, a virtual hackathon called the Jugaar Innovation Challenge saw tremendous success with over 40 innovative ideas to tackle Covid-19 submitted in under three weeks. Given our incubator’s ability to innovate in real time, we quickly followed that first Covid-centric event with an entirely virtual innovation and entrepreneurship course.

Although innovation is the way to forge our future, not everyone grasps that. Rather than encouraging and celebrating innovative initiatives, organizations have a tendency to cut down on creative innovation during tough times, considering them a mere luxury. However, leaders who are truly innovative and entrepreneurial understand opportunity disguised as crisis. This is equally applicable to the troublesome times of the pandemic, which means that we are going to observe a diversity of innovations, ranging from medical devices, drugs and healthcare delivery systems to public health communications, e-commerce and online businesses focusing on virtual learning and performance.

This pandemic will change the financial models of many businesses, especially of new startups introducing disruptive innovations as an integral part of their offerings. As organizations are adapting to new normals, treading unknown paths, it is crucial for their mutual survival that they support one another in their innovation journeys. This spirit of camaraderie and collaboration that supersedes short-term personal gains shall be much more beneficial for our collective future’s big picture.

Mohammed Mohsin, a biomedical engineer by profession, is currently enrolled at the Aga Khan University as an Innovation Fellow.

Asad Mian is chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine and director of AKU’s first co-innovation and incubation hub.

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