Pressure Makes a Diamond (part 1): Ways We Work, Learn, & Connect. Predictions for Innovations that Will Emerge from the COVID-19 Crisis

Times of crisis have produced innovation gems, from miniaturization of CT 3-D scanning and the launch of Meetup out of 9/11 to the founding of Slack and Github out of the 2009 financial crisis. We can expect the COVID-19 crisis to be no different. From a design thinking perspective, everyone has become an extreme user whose needs are more acute and easier to see. The duct tape we use to hold our professional and personal lives together is unraveling and revealing inefficiencies and weak joints that need repair. These points of friction point to new opportunities for innovation, invention, and product development.

Harnessing the collective brain of my friends and colleagues, I reached out across social media platforms to hear from health care workers, remote learners, manufacturers, community organizers, and scientists about what they feel are opportunities begging for new solutions and changes to our ways of being that will lead to lasting disruption. I was both blown away and inspired by the thoughtful ideas and dialogue that ensued. A ray of hope in what may feel like an ever darkening gray cloud. Below is my attempt to pull these thoughts together and add color to some of the conversations that emerged. The list includes specific ideas for product innovations (some almost begging for someone to grab on and develop a solution now), changes that have taken place and the lasting impact they may have, as well technology platforms whose utilization will be catalyzed moving forward. I make a limited attempt to distinguish between these, as the underlying conversation is the same…change is here to stay.

Ways we Work, Learn, & Connect

Remote work

While work-from-home (WFH) options have been growing in popularity, stay-at-home (SaH) orders from state and local governments moved WFH from a nice to have to a must for everyone. The at-scale pilot we are all participating in is certain to highlight what work can be effectively done remotely versus where face-to-face meetings are still an imperative. The collective brain felt that some of these changes will be here to stay forcing human resource departments to reconsider their WFH policies and perhaps even lead to a reduction in business travel in the long term.

The seemingly constant use of video conferencing and cloud-based tools has shone light on a few things that are not working successfully — terrible bandwidth/connections when we are all online (especially with multiple devices connected at once) and how much we have to switch between tools to get our work done in this new setting. One contributor mentioned, “I find myself switching between Miro, Mural, Zoom, Teams, Lookback and using different tools for meetings, whiteboards, voting, journey maps, prototyping.” That’s a lot of juggling. It makes me wonder which platform will develop the Swiss Army knife for remote collaboration. All platforms are going to have to consider how to more efficiently use bandwidth, particularly if we are going to create equal access (see Redefining basic needs in part 4).

As children and dogs make surprise appearances on conference calls and there’s really no clear “close of business,” we are experiencing an accelerated blending of our personal and professional lives. We can argue the pros and cons of this, but what is certain is that it’s happening whether we want it to or not. (If you need a laugh, check out the poor woman who forgot she was on a video call and went to relieve herself — taking her unsuspecting colleagues along with her.)

Distance Learning

Similar to WFH, issues of bandwidth and gaps in appropriate digital tools are present in distance learning. Teachers and parents have swiftly pieced together creative solutions to allow for peer-to-peer learning and self-driven learning opportunities.

Parents who were one day marketing executives and surgeons were the next day elementary school teachers. Teachers and parents alike were feverishly searching for massive open online courses (MOOCs) that could supplement learning that schools were able to send home or construct. Bored adults who have likely started but never finished a MOOC logged back into their stale accounts looking for ways to use this time to enhance their own skills. My family has even dipped our toes in the water, spending our evenings taking Yale’s The Science of Well-being, a.k.a. the Happiness Class, together. The hive mind believes that this will be a lasting adoption tipping point for MOOCs.

Moving to remote learning opened a lot of questions from those I connected with. Will online delivery level the playing field and create more equitable access to quality education across socioeconomic status as well as the rural-urban divide? Or, will it simply highlight the existing inequalities by allowing those who have access to resources, including broadband internet, to thrive while learning loss occurs for those that lack adequate access and support?

How we connect with each other

As an extrovert who values physical contact, SaH orders may be more deadly for me than COVID-19. The hive mind also had a lot to say about social connections today and moving forward. They shared examples of Zoom date nights with friends they haven’t connected with in a decade and mused about why it took a global crisis to motivate the re-connection. I heard about how platforms are moving to create alone-together moments, like simultaneous movie viewing or Instagram’s release of a tool to scroll together.

One friend mentioned that he feels that large-scale events will be forever changed by this crisis. The cancellation of SXSW and Expo West, to name only two, had significant fiscal consequences for the organizers and participants. Additionally, the networks and social connections that form at these large, focused gatherings are essential to how we advance intellectually and socially. Moving forward, perhaps we should expect the boundaries of in-person versus virtual boundaries of interaction to be blurred for social functions as well as at work.

Then there’s the situation my sister found herself in when my nephew was supposed to celebrate his 11th birthday with his friends. He was sorely disappointed when he couldn’t go to Great Bear Lodge, have a sleep over, or play video games with his friends. Is there an opportunity to create remote connections and interactions around celebrations, particularly for the pre-teen and teen set? What about online gaming platforms targeted at middle- and high-school students who want to play together, but need something that is more supervised and curated than the adult-focused gaming platforms that currently exist.

Check out other innovation spaces here:

Part 2: How Business Operates

Part 3: Healthcare

Part 4: The Path Forward

I teach innovation & entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Reformed chemist. I believe in the power of science to change the world.