A very short modern history of crisis innovation

By Jamie Williams, Senior Executive

Periods of volatility and crisis breed an innovative climate amongst industry, business and the scientific community. It is often during periods of hardship and turmoil that humans are stretched to the best of their abilities, and reach new heights of development and entrepreneurship, which years before crisis struck would have seemed unimaginable.

The COVID-19 crisis has been no different. NHS capacity has been rapidly expanded in a matter of days, rather than years. Medical devices have been manufactured on an industrial scale by giants such as Airbus and specialist Formula One Team. Distribution systems have promptly expanded the volume and speed of delivery. Small businesses have, overnight, broken into new product lines and services. 

Crisis across the last century follow this pattern. Take the Second World War for instance, where we saw a rapid acceleration in development and innovation. To name a few, the global catastrophe saw the birth of the computer, jet engines, radio and radar navigation, penicillin and nuclear power. 

So, what can businesses learn this time? Well, it is essential that business leaders recognise why a crisis rapidly accelerates development. A failure to acknowledge these conditions could see businesses miss the opportunity to adapt and drive forward positive change. 

First, a crisis forces action. Since the survival of businesses, economies and humans are at stake, the public and workforce are united by a clear and common purpose to avoid unfortunate events. As Michelle Dean once said, a crisis “forces commonality of purpose on one another.” The survival instinct kicks in, minds become focused and output dramatically increases. 

The total mobilisation of British industry during the Second World War is revealing. Take aircraft production for example. UK aircraft production rose from a mere 7,900 in 1939 to a staggering 26,000 in 1944. Whilst the Government clearly expanded the workforce, and the munitions budget, we know that workers became more productive, and efficient. The necessity to prevent a Nazi invasion meant the workforce came together united to make their mark on the war effort. 

Second, a crisis is often accompanied by a problem which requires an imaginative solution. We often see scientists and businesses rapidly accelerate the rate of development of inventions during a time of crisis. A failure to solve the problem is too costly. 

The Space Race, fought between the United States and Russia during the height of the Cold War, is a perfect example. The high reputational stakes for the superpowers meant that certain goals were set, that during a benign time, would seem overly ambitious. Kennedy declared in 1962, that “we choose to go to the moon by the end of this decade”, and by 1969 the Apollo Lunar Module had fulfilled Kennedy’s mission. An international crisis had spurred scientists to innovate and discover at a rate that our recent ancestors would find incomprehensible. Not only did the space race transform aviation, NASA and the SSSR (Soviet Space Programme) accidently stumped upon a range of inventions including the non-stick frying pan, satellite TV, the vacuum cleaners and smoke detectors. 

We all know that with crisis comes disruption. When we stop and think about why this occurs it may seem obvious. However, implementing the obvious could be the difference between business survival, or extinction. Businesses must realise that during a crisis, innovation is the central currency.

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