Every major pandemic in history has caused a seismic shift in both society and the economy. What ‘new normal’ is the coronavirus going to cause and what forms of innovation are likely to emerge as a result?

Pandemics have a long history of igniting innovation and accelerating change by providing an environment for testing new ideas. Whilst the current coronavirus is unprecedented in many ways, it is by no means the first global health crisis to change the course of history.

The earliest known pandemic was the Plague of Athens in 429 BC. Experts claim it took around 100,000 lives and changed how people think about life and disease. Since then, humans have been through hundreds of global health emergencies and despite how cruel these diseases can be, they have the power to redefine how society behaves, thinks and innovates.

For instance, few disasters have affected society as significantly as the Great Plague that swept Europe between 1331-3153. Researchers estimate that it killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population (tens of millions) and is considered the greatest calamity in history. Aside from the catastrophic number of deaths, it changed everything about how society functions. With millions of people dead, human labour became a premium so wages rose and the poor became wealthier, equalising society and driving literacy, giving rise to new thinking and freedom of thought.

However, the significantly reduced workforce led to workers made to work harder and longer – an approach to employment that gave rise to today's work style. This led to the invention of clocks and hourglasses to keep track of the time people worked. It also meant manufacturing organisations invented ways to do more with less people – giving rise to the concept of automation.

 The plague also made people aware that the medical system - rooted in religion - did not keep people alive. This led to the invention of modern medicine, grounded in science and experimentation. It also led to the first hospitals being built and education systems that taught science-based healing. Therefore, although one of the greatest disasters the human race has ever faced, the Great Plague created a new way of thinking that has shaped our lives for centuries.

Another great disaster to shape the way we think was the Boston Small Pox epidemic of 1721. It was a deadly disease and so to curtail it, a major intervention was needed. Variolation was invented as an early form of inoculation. During variolation, the pus from a lesion of an infected patient was inoculated into a healthy person causing a mild infection but then immunity. Inoculation saw the mortality rate drop from 14% to 2%, but despite such a clear benefit, the solution was considered repulsive, and caused lengthy debate.

As part of the debate, James Franklin (Benjamin Franklin's brother) took the unprecedented step of publishing his opinions against in a newspaper, transforming the paper into a forum for debate that sparked the trend of including stories about politics, local events, and even humour and satire throughout the pages. As such, the smallpox epidemic catalysed the development of the newspaper, giving rise to a medium that, for centuries, has shaped how we discuss and debate every type of issue in society. In addition, variolation was eventually accepted and the first smallpox vaccine, invented by Edward Jenner in 1797 saved millions of lives.

More recently, in November 2002, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) emerged, first appearing in China before spreading quickly to other neighbouring regions. Travel to Asia came to a standstill costing the global travel industry billions and causing the global economy to suffer around $40 billion. However, as people stayed inside, away from malls, restaurants and shops, a new trend emerged – that of e-commerce. E-commerce was virtually non-existent before the virus, yet as people stayed inside, it became a lifeline and sparked a shift in the perception of the internet generally with isolated families dialling up an internet connection for news and ways to communicate with those they couldn’t see. It also ignited the trend of online shopping, an industry that is now worth an estimated $3.53 trillion.

So how will historians remember the coronavirus of 2020?

Already, the pandemic is changing cultural and business norms and disassembling ways of life society has taken for granted for decades and centuries. Whilst some changes to society are likely to be temporary, others could sustain.

For instance, although work structures and systems were already in the process of evolving, with ideas such as flexible working growing in popularity, in just over just a few weeks, the entire world was working from home. Indeed, since the coronavirus outbreak, shares of Zoom have increased by $4 billion, and other collaboration platforms have significantly risen in value. In addition, as businesses continue to function away from expensive offices and meeting rooms, it is likely to cause a shift in how businesses view real estate questioning whether the office model used for decades is now redundant.

Further, as nations transition out of lockdown, a key concern is helping people to return to work safely. As businesses the world over grapple with plans to implement social distancing in their office, factory or laboratory, a host of innovations have sprung up to help. For example, the tech company Rombit has developed the Rombit Radius - a digital bracelet that monitors employees’ location to ensure social distancing and also allows contact tracing. By adapting its existing logistics bracelet, the Romware One, the bracelet vibrates if employees come closer than 1.5 metres. Employers can also set an upper limit on the number of employees inside a specific area at one time, alerting managers in real-time when the limit has been passed.

Meanwhile, other innovations have focused on how to make the workplace itself, safe. According to the World Health Organisation, COVID-19 can remain active on surfaces for several days meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces. However, Japan’s Nippon Paint and the US-based technology company, Corning Inc., have teamed up and developed an antiviral coating or paint, that offers an additional layer of protection by reducing the risk of infection from viruses on painted surfaces. Developed especially for healthcare and essential workers who are constantly exposed to it, the paint renders the virus 99.9 per cent inactive. Furthermore, it can also kill harmful bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Although developed for hospitals and healthcare environments, the paint could eventually be applied across industry.

The coronavirus has also changed how we consume. First causing stockpiling and blocked supply chains, global value chains have been forced to radically evolve to cater for changing demand and sentiment. For example, as shops implement significant social distancing measures, the experience of shopping has fundamentally transformed, and many retailers are taking advantage of the potential for the change.  For instance, previously an online table-booking platform, OpenTable has a new option that allows shoppers to reserve a slot for grocery shopping, limiting waiting times and reducing the crowds waiting to enter the store. According to OpenTable’s chief technology officer, Joseph Essas, the company, “put a team of engineers together and built this in less than a week.”

Other innovations that have sprung up in the retail sector as a result of the pandemic include Instacart’s database that eases stock shortages and an automated alert system that helps people keep their distance whilst shopping. Such new concepts are prime examples of how retail businesses are adapting to survive by focusing less on space or products and more on service and motivation.

The pandemic has also given rise to entirely new concepts in the leisure and entertainment space. As cinemas, theatres, theme parks and restaurants stay closed, people are entertaining themselves at home, a shift that is likely to remain long-passed the peak of the virus. This change in how we entertain ourselves is forcing the leisure industry to redefine the concept of customer experience causing many to come up with new ways to offer their previous service,  for instance, the Faroe Islands used to rely heavily on tourism but as international travel stopped, the territory came up with a novel way for people around the world to go on a virtual, self-guided tour of the archipelago.

Camera-wearing locals respond to sight-seeing commands from people at home, allowing virtual tourists to control their own route using a free app and have two minutes of control over the guide, who also provides a commentary. According to Visit Faroe Islands, the hope is that seeing the islands through a remotely-operated guide will “bring you joy and inspiration during these challenging times.”

Other creative marketing strategies in the leisure and entertainment industry include a restaurant chain that offers live-streaming with celebrity guests and a hockey league that is finishing its season as an e-sport.

In other sectors, it’s likely that the coronavirus will provide a launchpad for technology that has, until now, remained niche.

The global shortage of ventilators sparked an unprecedented show of collaboration and innovation among scientists, technologists and manufacturers. In Germany, for example, the federal government attempted to find a solution to the ventilator shortage and other issues, by holding a hackathon called #WirvsVirus (“We vs Virus”). The hackathon was designed to create a digital space for those who were already working to find smart solutions for the current crisis, whilst allowing the German government to rapidly source new ideas and then quickly choose the most promising for further funding.

It attracted more than 42,000 people, who spent 48 hours working together to develop ideas including; websites to coordinate logistics and find job openings for people who need to work from home; a digital network connecting schools and children to provide learning support; an app to notify users if they have had contact with someone who has tested positive; and a 3D printed open-source ventilator. The German government chose 20 of the most promising ideas developed during the hackathon for financial support and further development.

After the pandemic, it is possible that the ‘hackathon’ model could become more widely adopted, to develop other types of projects quickly and efficiently. For example, businesses could hold hackathons to find the best way to produce new components or projects, and they could be used to come up with ideas in all areas of government.

Much has been written about how the coronavirus will change life as we know it, yet it is still early to predict where the long-term shifts are going to be. However, the sheer volume of novel ideas and innovations that have sprung up as a result of the overnight pivot the world was forced to make, prove that once again, humans will survive by reengineering the future, probably for the better.

Contact Us

If you have any questions