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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Sparks Innovation

The current pandemic will also change the way we live, play and work. In fact, it’s already happening. Witness the manner in which technology has come into play in finding a treatment and cure for COVID-19.

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To say there is a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic is to almost trivialize a calamity that through mid-July had infected 13.6 million and killed nearly 600,000 around the globe, with 3.5 million of those cases and over 137,000 deaths coming in the U.S. alone.

But even as this global health crisis (and attendant economic crisis) rages on — with no end in sight, and the very real fear that things will get worse before they get better — there has been belief that tragedy will give way to hope; that mankind will take a giant leap forward after overcoming  this catastrophe. More than one observer noted that throughout history, events like these (especially those involving disease) have fostered innovation like nothing else.

Kumar Mehta, founder of Bridges Institute, an innovation think tank, noted three prominent examples while writing for Forbes:

  • The Back Death (1331-3153): While it killed as much as 60 percent of the European population, it also led to the demise of the feudal system. Equality arose, and along with it, land ownership and wages. Just as important, modern medicine displaced arcane medical practices, which had been based in religion.
  • Boston Smallpox Epidemic (1721-22): Half the city’s population of 11,000 was infected, and 850 died. It led to a fierce debate about inoculations, one which spilled over to print and led to the creation of the first independent newspaper.
  • SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) (2003): In an eerie preamble to the current outbreak, the spread of this disease in Asia resulted in travel restrictions and an economic downturn. But one of the offshoots was the rise of ecommerce in China.

Others have chimed in as well. Hospitality design executive Amy Jakubowski pointed out that the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-19) opened up increased opportunities for women in the workforce. And other crises have spawned other examples of innovation. No less a figure than Bill Gates, while likening the current situation to that of a world war (“except in this case,” he wrote, “we’re all on the same side”), called attention to the fact that during an actual conflict of that nature — World War II — such breakthroughs as radar, torpedoes and code-breaking helped the Allies achieve victory.

One last example came courtesy of Hamza Mudassir, co-founder and managing director of Platypodes.io. In his estimation the 2008-09 financial crisis was another point in history when mankind did a reset. Specifically he pointed to the rise of the “share” economy in the West — of Airbnb, Uber and Lyft coming to the fore.

The current pandemic will also change the way we live, play and work. In fact, it’s already happening. Witness the manner in which technology has come into play in finding a treatment and cure for COVID-19. Witness the manner in which remote work has become commonplace. And witness the manner in which supply chains have had to be adapted after being disrupted by the virus.

These changes (among others) figure to impact all of us, long after the pandemic ends. Here’s a closer look at each.

The Search for a Cure

MarketWatch took note in late May of a World Health Organization report saying that 70 potential vaccines were in various stages of development, with one being developed by Oxford University in the UK showing particular promise. Human trials began in April, and the best-case scenario is that it will be available by this fall.

Certainly innovation has come into play in the case of other organizations. Two UK firms, BenevolentAI and DeepMind, both used artificial intelligence to search for potential cures, with the first of those companies settling on a rheumatoid arthritis medication, baricitinib, as a possibility; while the second, an Alphabet subsidiary, discovered proteins associated with the virus. That brings researchers one step closer to developing vaccines to combat the disease.

Fixing Supply Chains

Mudassir asserted that various forms of tech — 5G, robotics, IoT and blockchain — can refortify supply chains that have been fractured during the pandemic. The specific example he offered was of autonomous vehicles and drones being used to deliver products.

Aera Technology president Frederic Laluyaux is of the belief that cognitive technology can help with the specific problem of tracking products. This tech, human-like in that it makes possible things like natural language processing, enables several companies to share data, like order status and product popularity, in the cloud. That makes it possible for items to proceed more efficiently through the chain.

The Changing Workplace

Remote work has become the norm for certain professions during the pandemic, and if the majority of workers have their way will remain so afterward; 54 percent of those surveyed by IBM would prefer to ply their trade in that fashion.

Mehta points out that this has all sorts of implications for engagement, communication and teamwork — and even real estate. Is it not possible that certain companies will revisit the idea of whether they even need large office buildings?

In the short term we have seen the rise of such technology as Zoom, a videoconferencing platform. Daily downloads of the app soared from 56,000 in January 2020 to 2.13 million by March, as it was used for everything from virtual business meetings to birthday parties.

So yes, the business world will almost certainly change. The world at large, too. It is an inevitability during — and especially after — a crisis like this. It is also a necessity and presents a myriad of very interesting potential investment opportunities for those remaining cognizant of evolving trends in the post-pandemic world.

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