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Now & Next: How COVID-19 is boosting innovation – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 11 March 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an emergence of new ideas and technologies. But what lessons can be learned as we look towards a post-pandemic era?

Narrator
There’s a less familiar story about Covid 19.  The crisis is boosting innovation with the emergence of brand new ideas.

MRNA vaccine, a new technology.

Narrator
And with the application of existing ones in surprising new ways.

Tom Standage - Deputy Editor The Economist
The crisis has caused an acceleration in adoption of technologies.

Narrator
This is pushing the world further into the future.

Keller Rinaudo - CEO, Zipline
We’ve had to build more aeroplanes than we ever have before.

Narrator
Often at breakneck speed.

Gini and Eccie Newton - Founders, Karma Kitchen
We’ve just closed 250 million pounds.

Narrator
Businesses are being forced to adapt or face extinction.

Another hammer blow to Britain’s retail sector.

This upsurge in innovation will bring lasting change for good and bad.

Could you get into your computer?

No.

This is my kids’ future.


So what lessons can be learned as the world looks towards the post-Pandemic era?

Pinar Ozcan - Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Oxford
There is an opportunity for innovation to stay at the cutting edge.

 

NOW&NEXT

How Covid 19 is boosting innovation

- San Francisco, USA

Keller Rinaudo
I haven’t seen… is this a new piece? What is this part?

It’s the front of the fuse.

Keller Rinaudo
Got it.

Narrator
This is the headquarters of Zipline. A drone manufacturing company.

Keller Rinaudo
Is this 3D printed?

Yeah.

Oh this is plastic now yeah, oh yeah totally.

Narrator
Since the Pandemic the business has really taken off. 

Drone technology has been around for a while but during the Pandemic it is starting to realise its considerable potential. With social distancing the new normal, health systems around the world are now looking at drones as a new and better way to deliver products such as blood, cancer treatments and vaccines.

Keller Rinaudo
Every hospital system and health system on earth is suddenly trying to reconfigure itself to a new reality, to extend the reach of the hospital system directly into the home, enabling care closer to where patients live so they have to travel less, it’s more convenient and the patient takes less risk of getting infected if they need to access general care.

Narrator
From mid-June to September 2020 Zipline delivered more than 100,000 medical products. As many as over the previous three years.

We’ve done a few things, a set of wing covers there now.

Keller Rinaudo
When did that change?

Weeks ago.

Narrator
Perhaps the most significant change has come in countries with strict airspace laws. In May 2020 an emergency license was issued in America allowing Zipline to fly long range delivery drones through controlled airspace for the first time and in December, American regulators issued new rules allowing drones to fly over people and at night. This looser approach is accelerating the shift towards more states receiving medical supplies in a more efficient and productive way.

Keller Rinaudo
So we’re seeing hospital systems that previously thought they had ten years to affect this kind of change, now trying to do this in one year.

Narrator
Although drone filled skies are some way off, Covid 19 has also accelerated the conversation around the use of drones beyond healthcare in a variety of new fields.

Keller Rinaudo
So I’ll pop this, I’ll pop this out.

Narrator
Zipline has partnered with retail giant, Walmart.  It’s one of a number of companies due to begin trial deliveries of consumer products.

Keller Rinaudo
I think it’s been really easy for people to understand the value and there is a pretty intense sense of civic pride around the country leading the way in terms of showing how this new technology can save lives.

Narrator
This kind of rapid adoption of emerging technologies has been called ‘tech-celeration’ and it’s the type of innovation that has been given the biggest boost around the world by the Pandemic.

Tom Standage
A classic example of tech-celeration was what happened in the National Health Service in England where a system to make possible video calling was effectively built over a weekend and then rolled out to Doctors across the country.

Narrator
Tech-celeration is pushing companies further and faster into the future.

Tom Standage
Exactly how many years into the future we’ve been pushed by this crisis varies, it depends on the behaviour and it depends on the country but it does seem to be sort of of the order of five years. So welcome to 2025.

Narrator
History shows that innovation often thrives during times of crisis. Take the financial crash of 2008 which led to the widespread adoption of cloud computing. The cloud had been around since the early 2000’s but it gained a new footing as the economic slowdown took hold.

Tom Standage
Companies were very often reluctant to try cloud computing, they thought it wasn’t secure and then they gave it a try, found it was cheaper, found it was more secure and cloud computing has expanded very rapidly.

Narrator
As well as accelerating the adoption of developing technologies, crisis can also foster the development of entirely new ideas.

Tom Standage
A good example of a crisis that led to lots of invention would be the Second World War. So you get the first digital computers which are used for code breaking, you get the first jet engines that paves the way for mass air travel, you get nuclear technology which is used for weapons but can also be used to generate energy and you also get the first rockets.

Narrator
When it comes to new ideas, Covid 19 has left its mark in the field of medicine. Where researchers around the world have pioneered new techniques in the development of vaccines.

Tom Standage
This phenomenal work has been done, multiple teams producing vaccines in months rather than years, using entirely new technologies in some cases so these mRNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine and they seem to work extremely well so that’s very impressive for example, of invention.

Boris Johnson
We are collectively telling cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants to close.

Narrator
In most industries the Pandemic has boosted innovation by forcing companies to adopt new ways of doing things. Purely as a matter of survival.

David Moore - Owner, Pied á Terre
We have innovated for necessity.

Narrator
Even for Michelin star restaurant owner, David Moore. Lockdown forced him to place 90% of his staff on furlough, an emergency Government scheme that pays the wages of workers.

David Moore
For the business it meant we have no income. I had thought that maybe we wouldn’t be able to get back doing what we did before. 

Narrator
So to save his business, David adopted something once unthinkable in the rarefied world of fine dining. A takeaway. The restaurant turned this, into this.

Oh thank you, amazing.

Narrator
An eat at home Michelin star ready meal. Now the restaurant’s vegan box has proven so popular it has been rolled out nationwide.

David Moore
I definitely see online as something that is staying with us. It has totally invigorated the business.

Billy that’s the samphire.

Narrator
As businesses throughout the hospitality industry have been forced to adapt the Pandemic has fuelled the rapid growth of the meal delivery industry. Globally the total revenue of this industry is now expected to reach $182 billion by 2024. An increase of more than a third from the projected level in 2020. When the Pandemic recedes the innovative mind-set many businesses have been forced to embrace look set to linger. For David the unexpected success of his food delivery service points to a hybrid model for the future. One that will allow his chefs to continue to innovate in the kitchen.

David Moore
Home delivery is not going to finish fine dining. Fine dining is here to stay, people want to be looked after, they want crisp linen, they want the waiters looking after them and they want no washing up afterwards.

Narrator
But while the Pandemic has made innovation a necessity for some companies, it has also restricted opportunities for others. Amidst the huge economic downturn companies have been consolidating. The third quarter of 2020 was the busiest for mergers and acquisitions in three decades. A trend that is likely to tilt resources for new thinking and new ideas further towards big companies.

Tom Standage
By and large big companies can continue to invest in difficult times. They can continue to take market share in a way that small companies can’t and so generally this is leading to a sort of greater inequality between companies, it’s a sort of big gets bigger phenomenon.

There are parts of America you can only scout if you come in here. Your international Harvester dealer showroom.

Narrator
History also suggests that successful companies tend to start life more often in the good times than the bad. Of the biggest American firms founded since 1970, more than 80% were born during eras of growth. During economic downturns life can be much harder for start-ups which are so often the engines of innovation.

- London, England

But back in the booming world of online food delivery, some start-ups have found hungry investors.

Gini and Eccie Newton - Founders, Karma Kitchen
So we just closed 250 million pounds, sorry we just closed 250 million pounds.

Narrator
Sisters Gini and Eccie Newton run Karma Kitchen. It’s a start-up that offers flexible kitchen space known as ghost kitchens to cooks and restaurants catering mainly to the delivery market. Whilst some ghost kitchens are owned by a single restaurant chain, Karma Kitchen has many different companies hot stationing under one roof, producing everything from West African donuts to Tandoori curries. The company was founded two years ago and the Pandemic has transformed its fortunes.

Gini and Eccie Newton
What would have taken us potentially three years to achieve has now taken eight months in terms of market demand.

Narrator
The start-up has recently opened it second ghost kitchen in London and it has another five sites under construction. It plans to build many more ghost kitchens in residential and office hotspots across Europe.

Gini and Eccie Newton
We want to open sixty kitchen facilities and that starts for us with the funding.

Narrator
The ambition of fast growing start-ups like Karma Kitchen can attract investors but it can also end with a start-up selling itself to a larger company with deeper pockets and that brings its own risks.

Pinar Ozcan - Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Oxford
We see from the research on the mergers and acquisitions when an acquisition happens the innovativeness of that small firm typically goes down. The question really is whether large conglomerates will be able to fuel these start-ups in order for them to carry the front in terms of innovation and for that innovation to then be disseminated into the rest of the organisation.

Narrator
For many large and small companies, working from home has been the most significant innovation to come out of the Pandemic. In 2020, Covid 19 turned a little known tech firm into one of  the success stories of the Pandemic. At the start of the year about 10 million people were taking part in meetings over Zoom each day but this had shot up to 300 million by April 2020 and the widespread adoption of remote working during the Pandemic could lead to further innovation in future. More companies may be inclined to take risks and embrace new ideas in the coming years.

Tom Standage
They’ve discovered that actually working from home can work really well and doesn’t seem to make people less productive, they make people more productive. That will mean that after the crisis, companies will be more willing to keep some of those behaviours, maybe have less business travel, maybe have more working from home and maybe even dare to try other things that they were reluctant to so it’s just allowing them to be tested and not punishing people if they don’t work because that’s just going to put them off.

Narrator
Some of the most ground breaking ideas require the right opportunity and circumstances to demonstrate their value.  Two decades ago E-learning emerged as a radical new idea.  Predicted to transform the world of education.  But such predictions fell flat.

Sending all students home for the rest of this semester after a coronavirus outbreak on campus.

Until Covid 19 struck and the potential of remote learning became clear.

One of the question I have for you is what do you think it means to be healthy?

The online education market is set to nearly quadruple between 2019 and 2026.

Pinar Ozcan
The Pandemic has really changed the culture inside educational institutions and made them more open to, to adopting E-learning. Online learning democratises learning to a great extent, it has allowed students to really customise learning to, to their needs. You could complete an entire Degree online because you may be in a part of the world where it’s very difficult for you to commute to, to a University.

Narrator
The culture change around online learning seems here to stay but with it comes a reminder that new innovations can also struggle to overcome some old challenges. For full-time University student and mum of three, Christina Holley studying before the Pandemic was going well.

Christina Holley
Every semester I got A’s and B’s. I was meeting and beating my own expectation and my kids were studying really hard and grades were good.

Narrator
But now Christina is unable to afford the technology required to allow her family to participate in the switch to E-learning.

Christina Holley
Having the transition to online education was terrible. There weren’t enough devices in the home. Using one chrome book for three children is terrible. First of all their schedules were at the same time so when you have, all three of you have to start school at 8.30 on one chrome book it’s impossible.

Narrator
According to America’s Education Department nearly 1 in 8 children do not have internet access via a desktop or laptop at home. Digital learning looks likely to entrench social inequality in the post-Pandemic world.

Sean Michael Morris - Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab, University of Colorado Denver
The reliance on technology has really surfaced these inequalities that existed before but that were not as present because everyone was in a room together.

Narrator
Christina says that falling behind could force her to become a part-time student and that this will reduce her financial aid and affect her ability to pay for her college studies.

Christina Holley
I hate to even think about what that means because this is my, my life you know, this is my kids’ future. There is really no other option for me other than school.  This is what I need to do in order to bring us out of poverty.

Narrator
Many of the innovations that have flourished during the crisis are centred around digital technology and will have become part of everyday life when the world returns to more ordinary times.  Technologists and policy makers face the challenge of ensuring these new innovations do not entrench inequality but instead broaden opportunity.

Keller Rinaudo
I think that this is really an important chance for humanity to not only bring new technology to bear but for the first time, bring it to bear in a way that is equitable for human on Earth.

Tom Standage - Deputy Editor, The Economist
Hello I’m Tom Standage, Deputy Editor at The Economist. If you would like to read more about how Covid 19 is driving innovation then click on the link opposite and if you would like to watch more of our Now&Next series, then click on the other link. Thanks for watching and please don’t forget to subscribe.


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