Frans van Houten, Philips’ CEO, made a plea last October to allow his employees in creative roles to work together in offices. It raised the question of what impact the pandemic would have on our creativity and ability to innovate. As he did not believe working from home would produce as many ‘eureka’ moments as before the pandemic.
COVID-19 impact on innovation velocity
On the one hand, we have seen a rapid acceleration in innovation. Vaccines have been developed at record speed, with global collaboration and competition playing a key role. As have digital technologies such a videoconferencing, online shopping and streaming entertainment in response to national lockdowns.
On the other hand, we have not just the claim of Mr. van Houten, but also the temporary closure of R&D departments such as at NASA, which has led to lower productivity in terms of innovation. Lastly, uncertainty breeds caution. In a time of crisis, people tend to be more cautious in their spending. Innovation budgets, which are typically classified as highly important but not urgent, are always an early casualty of risk-averse management.
What then is the impact of the pandemic on innovation going forward? There are two responses we might expect to see. The first relates to our tendency to cocoon, a term coined by ‘Faith Popcorn’ in 1981, to refer to how people will stay inside their homes rather than go out in order to insulate themselves from perceived dangers. But cocooning might be not conducive to people’s creativity and innovation, as the isolation of lockdown has let many people feeling unstimulated and demoralized.
Urgent need for breakthroughs
The second point that could be made here is that we do continue to see innovative breakthroughs at times of crisis. Times of war have led to significant advances in technology. Examples include the nuclear bomb, GPS and the internet. Interestingly enough, GPS and internet only surged once developers opened up the development process for the rest of the world.
Open innovation as the answer
Which of these two responses to the pandemic will prevail? As we are in our inception phase of 42Collective, we have been surprised about the awareness in the market about open innovation and the willingness between companies to collaborate. Despite the day-to-day Covid challenges, there is an awareness with corporates, NGO’s and governments. An awareness that today challenges, as described in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, are too big to solve on your own.
Hence the best antidote for cocooning might be to start your own open innovation run as a company. Perhaps with a few partner organizations? It is like dating. You might run the risk of finding a new friend and who knows, maybe even some offspring.