Research shows that managers tend to see restrictions and a lack of resources as the main obstacles to innovation – but crises continue to prove the opposite.
Forced experimentation can – and does – bring about change for the better. It can trigger us to seek solutions and develop workarounds that complacency would not. And sometimes, those changes leave us better off. As economist and writer Tim Hartford says, “The best way to finish somewhere different is to start somewhere different.”
And the tragic COVID-19 outbreak is undoubtedly somewhere different. Officials are scrambling to contain its spread. Economists (and corporate innovators) are monitoring the economic damage. Businesses are battening down the hatches to protect their employees.
But this does, inevitably, provide an opportunity for forced experimentation and growth. How many intrepreneurs are watching the travel-ban workarounds that are being tested right now? How many are keeping a keen eye on the sudden shifts in consumer behavior? And how many are thinking about what they can learn from this to prevent further outbreaks or be better prepared to handle them next time?
Here are 5 ingenious innovations and consumer behavior-enabled products that may never have happened if chaos hadn’t ensued.
1. Meetup communities
The devastating events of 9/11 shocked the world and saw many residents of New York City band together in their shared grief.
Noting this unusually neighborly behavior in the wake of the attacks, Scott Heiferman was inspired to create a platform that would help people build communities.
That’s how, he says, he conceived one of the first social networks, Meetup. The app has since accumulated more than 35 million users by enabling them to connect and organize events based on their shared interests.
“Who gives a shit if you innovated?” he says of the move. “All that matters is that you’re helping people.”
2. Travel routes following London’s train strike
In 2014, a strike of employees across the London Underground forced commuters to find alternative routes to work. And in the end, many were better off.
After studying anonymized travel card data, academics from Oxford & Cambridge University discovered that 5% of Londoners didn’t switch back to their original route when the strikes were over.
In being forced to explore alternative directions that they would not have been triggered to try before, the strike actually ended up producing a net economic benefit.
3. Facebook’s ‘I’m safe’ feature
Facebook’s Safety Check has been a feature in many global disasters – users in the region impacted are prompted to tag themselves and let friends know they’re safe. Its first major use was in April, 2015, in the wake of Nepal’s earthquake. More than 7 million people were marked safe, and notifications to over 150 million friends were generated across the platform.
The feature has since evolved into a dedicated Crisis Response page where you can essentially explore a newsfeed of catastrophes around the world, with the option to make donations and offer help during disasters. These days, it’s a go-to spot for concerned loved ones across the globe.
4. Spike in virtual communication
Evidence continues to emerge linking remote work to increased productivity. And yet, working from home has been viewed as a privilege for employees rather than a necessity. That is, until now. The coronavirus outbreak has led to a huge shift in behavior, and suddenly, work-from-home setups and virtual communication tools are looking like an excellent investment.
In response to COVID-19, Google and Microsoft are giving away their enterprise conferencing tools (freemium model, anyone?), but free access is only available for a limited time. And virtual communication stocks have soared.
It remains to be seen whether the surge in virtual-tool users will mirror the teleconferencing boom associated with the SARS epidemic in 2003: business for international telecoms company TeleCall doubled in two months, seeing a 200% increase in users signing up and a 30% increase in customers worldwide. But we’ll be keeping our eye out for new offerings and players.
5. Demand for digital doctors
Many formerly real-world services have migrated online at this point, but when it comes to healthcare – adoption of technology has been slow. We discussed this in more detail recently but suffice it to say – consumers aren’t yet willing to trust machines when it comes to their health.
But in another example of a crisis accelerating adoption and encouraging investments in new, innovative technologies, this outbreak is speeding things up in China.
The COVID-19 epidemic is seeing many steer-clear of clinics and remain confined to their homes. And as a result, millions are seeking treatment and healthcare advice online.
Xin Lijun, CEO of JD Health, an eCommerce platform for pharmaceutical products, says that his platform’s monthly consultations have grown tenfold since the outbreak – reaching 2 million. “Without an outbreak, such a shift in consumer behavior would have perhaps taken five years,” he says.
The firm joins a herd of 22 new global unicorns emerging from China, with a $7 billion valuation.