Business
June 15, 2020

Thoughts on the pandemic and the spirit of innovation

People have demonstrated throughout history that times of crisis -- wars, natural disasters, and as we’re experiencing now, pandemics --  lead to ingenious efforts in order to survive. 

Medical researchers make strides as they work on developing vaccines. Buildings are repurposed as depots for emergency services.

On the industrial side, companies surge innovation across all areas of operation.

Larry Clark of Harvard Business Review wrote about this phenomenon at the end of March, when we saw the COVID-19 pandemic ramp up in the United States.

“What these innovations will have in common is that they will solve problems, which is always at the heart of innovation. And they’ll also be driven by the intensely human desire to help, to connect with other people, and be part of the solution when things get hard,” he says.

“But there is much more to the generative nature of a crisis that leads to innovation than simply an opportunity to solve problems,” he continues. “Crises present us with unique conditions that allow innovators to think and move more freely to create rapid, impactful change.” 

We're inspired by ways we've seen innovation unfold locally over the past few months -- especially among the food and beverage industry, as it pivots to adhere to new safety requirements.

We heard about an example of this in neighboring Lancaster County. Kyle Sollenberger and Crystal Weaver co-own Commons Company, the parent of their cluster of local food, beverage, and hospitality businesses, including Prince Street Cafe here in York -- plus four other cafes, a coffee company, and a catering company. As a result of the pandemic, they spun up another new businesses to meet their community’s needs: Commons Food Hub.

With their own eateries unable to conduct business normally, and most of their industry colleagues in the same position, Commons Food Hub allows them to keep operations going for themselves and other small, local businesses in the food and beverage industry -- including a butchery, dairies, restaurants, a distillery, a cidery, and more.

Customers can shop and buy goods from the vendors at Commons Company’s website, and pick them up in one load on Wednesdays and Saturdays from a depot in either Lancaster or Lititz. The entire process is contactless, and has allowed these small businesses to stay afloat, and customers to safely obtain the goods they need.

Manufacturers are stepping up, too.

Further east in Berks County, four people spun up the Berks PPE Resource Network, which today consists of dozens of companies, organizations, and volunteers. Together, they provide PPE -- designed and manufactured themselves, in response to the pandemic -- to medical and emergency workers for free.

It began when Ellen Albright, who works for the region’s chamber of commerce, emailed a handful of contacts in the local manufacturing and scientific research communities, asking for their help in brainstorming ways to help struggling medical providers.

Today, the group includes 3D printing companies who are donating the use of their equipment, and manufacturers who pivoted from designing products like construction components to creating protective face masks. At the time of this post, the Network has donated about 32,000 pieces of PPE to workers at more than 200 organizations.

Back in March, technology journalist Peter Fetty wrote that manufacturers have historically yielded innovative results when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges -- and they often bounce back stronger than before.

“Bold decisions and technological investments could lead to outcomes including more concerted and widespread move to lights-out manufacturing; increased usage of autonomous materials handling and goods vehicles; a more integrated, diverse, and coordinated supply chain; an investment in smart cities to support community resilience; and a move to virtual workspaces and practices,” he says.

It will take a concerted effort, however, to keep up the drive and vigor that comes from acting in times of crisis.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs continue to offer advice about continuing the spirit of innovation. A recent article published in Chicago Booth Review discusses some of these methods:

  • Challenge your assumptions about what your company’s business model, products, and customers should look like. These assumptions tend to be mostly based on the circumstances of the industry when your company began -- but as time goes on and circumstances change, we need to remember to reevaluate them regularly to see if they need revision.
  • Force constraints. One the reasons we see people ramp up creativity so much when confronted with a problem is because along with the problem come constraints, which force us to stray from our old patterns and methods. Our brains form literal pathways based on our experiences, so we are essentially “programmed” to do what feels familiar. Constraints -- like needing to maintain social distancing in the workplace -- force our brains off those pathways into more creative territory.
  • Keep collaborating with groups outside your organization. The Berks PPE Network is a great example of new partnerships forged in order to meet a common goal -- it’s united manufacturers, colleges, non-profits, and more. Like constraints, collaborations help us veer away from old methods that feel safe, but don’t lend to innovation.
  • Move quickly, and worry about perfection later. This one can be especially tricky to buy into, because instinct tells us it’s dangerous. Most companies move slowly and through many steps when considering major revisions, whether it’s to a process or a product. Events like the COVID-19 pandemic allow us to see the bottlenecks and inefficiencies, eliminate them, and make results happen sooner -- both in the moment, and after things have returned to normal.

We’re fortunate to live in a country that values resiliency and community. This entrepreneurial spirit and desire to make big impacts is why we formed K2 Kinetics.

References:

  • The Atlantic: “Innovation and Economic Crises,” by Richard Florida 
  • Chicago Booth Review: “Four ways to ensure innovation continues after the crisis,” by Lindsey Lyman
  • Harvard Business Review: “Innovation in a time of crisis,” by Larry Clark 
  • Industry Week: “Tale of COVID-19: Crisis Inspiring Innovations,” by Peter Fretty 


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