Pressure Makes a Diamond (part 2): How Business Operates.

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 blow 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.

How Business Operates

Supply chain and distribution networks

There’s nothing like a country-wide shortage of toilet paper to stimulate conversation about supply chains and logistics. But, the questions and opportunities that emerge in this space extend far beyond TP. How can innovations address the mismatch in supply chain during times of crisis, which range from access to testing reagents, to milk at the grocery store, to live-saving ventilators? Structural changes are likely required to ensure last-mile access, while predictive analytics offer an opportunity to better plan in advance.

As we watch automotive manufacturers figure out how to partner to transition their manufacturing capabilities to support current demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies, it leaves me with the question of how we might think about advance planning for asset utilization during times of crisis. Could systems be established that would enable rapid deployment of slack manufacturing capacity during the next global crisis?

Another trend is likely to be the continued removal of germy humans out of the supply chain. Robots for packing. Robots for shipping. Robots for delivery. It’s coming and the COVID-19 crisis will likely only accelerate it.

My favorite example of shifts to supply chains came from a friend of mine in Italy (not to worry, she and her family are currently healthy and safe). She shared this downloadable file for printing your own PPE at home — on your personal 3D printer. 3D printers around the world have been set into motion printing PPE, respirator parts, and other needed medical supplies to support our healthcare workers. But, the ability to own a personal 3D printer that can print any essential item you might need when inventory is low and access is limited is enough to motivate me to purchase. Will we see 3D printers becoming essential in-home appliances in the near future?

E-commerce is a way of life

Over the last decade, how we shop has irrevocably changed. While our willingness to trust and purchase from a website and await delivery for items like books, clothes, and other nonperishables has exploded, there’s been resistance in certain categories. The COVID-19 crisis and our mandate to limit human contact is likely to catalyze adoption of e-commerce for grocery delivery, frozen goods, and other perishables. And, beer delivery from my local craft brewery is basically a personal dream come true. Consumer adoption of these services during the COVID-19 crisis may move these services from a nice-to-have to mainstream with utilization continuing long after our stay-at-home (SaH) orders end.

In-home service providers

For in-home service providers like your dog walker, house cleaner, and nanny, the COVID-19 crisis has likely put an abrupt end to their income (or at least drastically reduced it). Despite these individuals often being trusted members of your extended family, people are hesitant to allow an outsider into their living space. To overcome this, one member of the hive mind suggested access to third-party COVID-19 testing for in-home providers. Such a service would offer everyone peace of mind and allow these individuals to continue to earn income.

Society — business relationship

Milton Friedman built a generation of followers around the idea that the sole purpose of business was to maximize profits (so long as you don’t break the rules). For decades we have debated the merit of this mantra, especially post 2009 financial crisis. As the impact of SaH orders plays out in our communities and our local businesses, it may again be time to re-ignite the discussion about the connection between business and society. It’s never been clearer that without a healthy and thriving community businesses cannot thrive. We are also seeing how groups are banding together to back the businesses that have supported their communities and built a relationship that extends beyond a commercial transaction. Community members are organizing fundraisers, stockpiling gift cards (to create cash flow), and ordering take-out from the businesses they treasure because it’s more than just a sale. These businesses have shown that their reason for existing extends beyond maximizing profits and now the community is returning the favor.

One member of the hive commented about changes we can expect around business entities and ownership. Perhaps this crisis will increase the number of cooperative and member-owned businesses that exist or create new risk-sharing structures that allow for community and group lending. What the outcome will be will unfold over time, but I think it’s safe to say that these are conversations we weren’t having before SaH.

For more ideas that emerged, check out:

Part 1: Ways We Work, Learn & Connect

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.