Creativity vs. Corona: How Innovative Minds Enlist to Save Humanity

May 27, 2020

By – Arnaz Dalal (Equitable Healthcare Access Consortium)
Astha Sharma (Indian School of Business-CBM)

The human mind and its capacity to innovate with Flexibility, Agility and Resilience (FAR) is what will make us as a society weather the aftermath of COVID-19 effectively.

Even in the fiercest of storms, a palm tree will stay rooted in the ground. Devastating winds will destroy everything in their path, except the palm tree. Because it is flexible, during a hurricane, the palm tree will bend as much as needed to weather the storm and will rise back up, standing tall when the storm passes. The metaphor for flexibility is the palm tree. Human beings need to imbibe that quality of flexibility during these hard times of the pandemic.

The human race needs a tool to deal with this terrible pandemic. A tool through which we can travel far by creating value for not just ourselves but our families, organizations, our societies, our country and the world is “FAR”, the acronym denoting Flexibility, Agility and Resilience.

Flexibility is the quality of bending without breaking. It is the ability to absorb a blow and bounce back quickly. Several businesses have changed course from what they originally set out to do because of the pandemic and they could quickly identify new opportunities to address new challenges, and in the process finding creative workarounds that suit the new circumstances.

This quality was displayed by the health minister of Kerala, Smt. K.K. Shailaja who is also fondly known as Shailaja Teacher in Kerala (she was a school teacher earlier in her career). She had been avidly following the news of the Coronavirus and its spread in China. In early January, 2020, after consultations with her team of healthcare experts, in order to preempt the spread of the pandemic, she galvanized the state machinery into action. She got the entire state to prepare for the arrival of the virus and took several early measures to check its spread. This preparedness led to controlling the outbreak of the virus to a large extent and in the process, saved many lives in the state. “The Pathanamthitta Model” in Kerala has been a shining example of how the challenge of COVID-19 was averted (in the analogy of the palm tree described above, absorbing the blow) with quick thinking and action (building the capacity to bounce back). Together these two traits describe both “Flexibility” and “Resilience”.

Another example of flexibility is the team of Yonatan Amir, Dr. Kira Radinsky, both alumnus of Technion Institute and Professor Moshe Shoham, who is a Professor at Technion Institute. Together, they founded Diagnostic Robotics. They originally used this Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based technology for emergency rooms, to predict and manage the patient loads. The technology enabled the hospital handling these patients to prioritize the patients, to determine who among them needed care most urgently. However, by March of 2020, as COVID-19 cases surged, they put together a team to adapt their solution to address the new problem that confronted all hospitals. They created a solution to address COVID-19 patients, rapidly collecting and processing large volumes of real-time data as it flowed through the system. They deployed AI to study the spread of the virus and nature of illness of the patient, in order to help hospitals, make preparations in advance for treating patients. This solution is currently deployed in Israel, USA and in the state of Odisha in India.

“What do I know that could be useful and put to use by some people/organizations dealing with this pandemic?”, is a good question for each of us to keep asking ourselves, as this virus leaves its debilitating trail across the world. In Prof. Maital’s case, being a Professor, he has ideas on how to address this crisis. He gives life to these ideas by writing extensively, including uploading one or two insightful and well-researched blogs every day!

Agility: The ability to think, understand, adapt and move quickly in response to challenges. The ability to pivot and change direction quickly is what agility is all about. Sometimes this movement may be in a completely different direction vis-à-vis what was planned before by the venture.

In the year 2003, one of the employees at Alibaba was diagnosed with SARS due to which the entire office was likely to be placed under quarantine within hours of the diagnosis. The employees predicted that once this was done, they would not be able to come to work for many days. Within a very short period of time, all employees lugged their large computers out of the office, in order to work from their home. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, decided to use the crisis to take on what he perceived was Alibaba’s biggest threat – Ebay. Thus, was born The subsequent rise of this company ensured that the shutters for Ebay were downed in China and they had to exit the market there.

According to Prof. Shlomo Maital “A leader can either shut down the organization during a crisis or can seize the opportunity by being agile.” Market leadership gets disrupted and reorganized during times of recession and downturns. Most incumbents go into cost-cutting and survival mode. A few companies however out-innovate their large, incumbent competitors at such times. These are the companies that succeed in sailing through the storm successfully, We need people of vision who can look into the future, gather their resources and innovate quickly. However, innovation requires breaking existing rules. Rules shape our lives. We need loose-tight organizational cultures that allow employees to break rules in order to innovate. Predictably, this is a delicate balance that organizational leaders will have to grapple with.

Resilience: This is the capacity to recover quickly from failure. The economic cost of the COVOID-19 crisis will be prolonged and difficult. The capacity of a society to prepare, contain and manage crisis and bounce back, expeditiously to an enhanced state of functioning is what will make them resilient.

Social support in the form of our loved ones, friends and families is the key to survive this crisis. The need of the hour is physical separation and social cohesion, rather than social distancing. The central role of communication technology to help humanity to tide over the COVID-19 crisis cannot be underestimated. These technologies have ensured that we are not socially isolated, despite long periods of lockdowns across the world.

This is the time for leaders to emerge, manage and lead. There is a crying need to increase the breed of leaders who will successfully lead their countries out of this crisis by keeping their egos in check, communicating effectively, and listening to experts.

It is crucial for countries to work together to shorten the recovery period required for the world to come out of the crisis. With many companies struggling through the massive downturns triggered by plummeting demand, governments must step in and find creative ways to fuel demand. This requires massive government spending. Personal spending from individuals has crashed, as people tend to save more in order to be able to survive through the crisis. This necessitates governments to step in to generate demand. In this process, governments should not be unduly concerned with consequent accumulation of debt, which can be addressed once the economies bounce back to normalcy in a few years.

The global economy is on the edge of a precipice. Going forward, only those countries that adopt a “Systems Thinking” approach will be able to effectively overcome the crisis. Those that do not heed this advice will flounder. For this to be effectively executed, each government must constitute a task force comprising of professionals and subject matter experts from various disciplines come up with creative ideas that are then taken up for rapid execution, with adequate and extremely agile feedback mechanisms. Unless this is done, it is likely that the world will end up repeating the mistakes that were done during the great depression that lasted a whole decade from 1930.

“Our future lies before us like fresh untrodden snow, how we step on it, every step will show”

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