Monday, April 27, 2020

Pay Attention to the "Quiet Innovation" as We Beat Back This Pandemic

Thomas Edison (public domain)
One of the underlying lessons in Innovation on Tap is that we often confuse innovation and technology.

After all, technology is so visible and so cool.
I remember columnist Peggy Noonan writing about the sense of wonder she had in the early 1990s.  “I saw a young man named Steve Jobs prowl a New York stage and unveil a computer . . .  It was a time so full of genius and dynamism,” Noonan wrote, “that it . . .was like hearing great music.”

We’ve heard a little of that great music lately as companies respond to COVID-19 by innovating masks, ventilators, and—we hope—vaccines.  Daniel Isenberg and I did a piece on Medium that speaks to what we believe the enduring drivers of the pandemic will be, the places where entrepreneurs can seek opportunities to innovate.  Many of those opportunities are driven by technology, but not nearly all.

And, it's the "not nearly all" that we should pay special attention to as we beat back this pandemic.

For example, what was the most influential innovation of the nineteenth century?  The steam engine?  Railroad? Telegraph? Electric grid? Peter Drucker says, no, it was not nuts-and-bolts technology at all.  It was the R&D lab.

What remarkable innovation arose from the Great Depression?  The New Deal.

In other words, it’s not the combination of gears and ratchets, code and algorithms, microbes and proteins that drives the most important innovation.  It’s the organization of people, knowledge, and capital.  Social innovation.  Getting people to relate to each other and their world differently, and providing the tools and incentives to do it.

The R&D lab and the New Deal turned the world on its head, even if the Model T and transistor got all the glory.  These social innovations represent the kinds of silence in between the great music we’ll be hearing as 3D-manufactured ventilators and the first vaccines come to market. 

This. (Credit: Daily Mail)
Examples?  We know that two-thirds of guys don't wash their hands after they've finished their business in a Men's Room. If getting gents to practice civilized hygiene is the only social innovation to emerge from this pandemic, we will be blessed.

But think about how we're suddenly attending meetings, conferences, lectures, trade shows, graduations, funerals, museum exhibits, and religious services on Zoom.  What will that mean for how we relate going forward? 

I heard recently about a woman who had been out of contact with her scattered siblings for years; they now have a Zoom “happy hour” every Friday.  How about the families who ditched church because they couldn’t get five people up and fed and dressed by 9 a.m. on Sunday but can get them gathered around a giant screen in the family room?

There are already companies talking about working-at-home becoming the new normal. What will it mean for social innovation if half the country stops having to commute for two or three hours every day?

What about the design of your home?  How’s that open floor plan feel with two people working and three kids home-schooling?  And bringing all those Amazon boxes and groceries into the garage instead of placing them on the kitchen counter? 

Creative destruction. (Credit: Irish Times)
How many of us will be planting a garden this spring, including some folks who haven't had dirt under their nails since they were five years old?

Knowing what we know today, how would we design a nursing home?  A “flexible” hospital?  A prison?  A dormitory or hotel that could double as a haven in a pandemic?

How about ordering, seating, and dining in a restaurant? How will it change, and what will it mean for our Saturday night out with friends?

If the NFL starts this year without live fans--and the audience is as large as it was for the recent virtual draft--what will that mean for professional sports?

And true creative destruction? How about never having to sit in a middle seat again?!

The technological innovation coming out of this pandemic will be great music.  But the social innovation, the silence all around the great music, will be deafening.

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