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How COVID-19 pandemic can give impetus to innovation

Kuok Fidero, PhD / Share:
Nurse Gao Qi checks health condition for a patient at Beijing Ditan Hospital in Beijing, capital of China, May 11, 2020. Beijing Ditan Hospital is one of the capital's designated hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients. (Xinhua/Peng Ziyang)

The momentum of the COVID-19 outbreak has been building up, disrupting both the global economy and socialisation by preventing and limiting the mobilisation of individuals domestically and across the world. The evolution of COVID-19 has drastically taken its course, since its first case reported in late December and expanded to more than 213 countries with 4,434,653 confirmed cases, including 302,169 deaths as of Sunday, according to the World Health Organization. Despite the negative consequences of this pandemic, the disruptive COVID-19 has catalysed the development of science, technology and innovation (STI).

Historically, the primary impetus of STI development in the case of Cambodia, is evidenced by the massive construction of the Angkor complex using not only hydro-technological advancements, but also precision engineering – as early as the 9th century, while the rise of Western science emerged only during the 16th century, expanding from Italy, France, England, the Netherlands and to Germany, to name a few. This spread of Western science was seemingly observed at a later stage, through the period of colonial science and the process of science transplantation, with the struggle to instill an independent scientific culture. One astonishing example of this science transplantation was the rapid progress of Japanese science, acknowledged by British evolutionist Charles Darwin in 1879. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the development pace of STI highly depends on social mobilisation and political will, based on which the status of scientists must be well-recognised and pursued as personal endeavors without any inhibition of the growth of science – only so the expansion of the community could be made possible. One cannot deny nor ignore the fact that STI has drastically and unimaginably changed the world over the past century contributing to high economic development and human welfare.

Economically, the rapid rise of global tech startup ecosystems – the replication of silicon valleys across the world – exhibits dynamic creativity and innovation. Yet, the activation of technological innovation requires the harmony of various conditions and individual virtue to bring about ambidexterity of divergent and convergent thinking. What could possibly be a stimulant for technological creativity and innovation, amid the COVID-19 pandemic? One could learn from the flight of Apollo 13 to the moon, during which as an explosion on board damaged its air filtration system and put three astronauts’ lives at stake. Upon receiving notification back on the ground; engineers, scientists and technicians worked around the clock virtually assisting astronauts to build a replacement of a damaged system and saving astronauts’ lives.

Unquestionably, the relationship between time-pressure and creativity has a great impact on productivity – ie, saving lives from the COVID-19 outbreak. One could argue that an individual’s sense of contribution to humanity, during a mission under extreme time-pressure, could potentially unleash powerful creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. Conversely, without a purposeful mission, one would feel unmotivated and uninspired, resulting in less energy and the ability to think creatively. This time-pressure and creativity dynamic justify the call for a “One Health, One Planet” Response, where doctors, with inputs from veterinarians and environmental scientists, are working tirelessly to fight against COVID-19.

Recent surveying of more than 100 technology experts on COVID-19’s potential impact on global technology and data innovation by Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center on April 13, affirmed beliefs that the COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate innovation significantly in four main fields: medical and bio-engineering sciences, the future of work, trust and supply chains and data and Artificial Intelligence (AI), in that particular order. In the next two to five years, it is expected that the most impactful innovation attributed to COVID-19 will be seen in medical and bioengineering sciences, while data and AI will highly depend on the degree of preparedness and readiness of each country to jumpstart innovation, in terms of science and technology research and development.

Less than two decades ago, the SARS epidemic gave birth to two giant e-commerce platforms: Taobao – an online shopping site which later helped Alibaba defeat eBay-backed EachNet, and JD.com – an offline operation selling disc drives and CD burners in Beijing. Seeing the landscape of COVID-19 as affecting all sectors, it is quite prominent that the Coronavirus pandemic will bring about innovation and the expansion of online education, delivery services, remote working platforms and 5G, for instance. Vis-a-vis, resonance of COVID-19 challenges have been witnessed across the globe: Alibaba GET Global Challenge, MIT COVID-19 Challenge, Smart Axiata COVID-19 Relief Fund, HacKHthecrisis Cambodia. All these challenges aim to convene the most inspired minds to foster creativity and innovation, in addressing the pandemic. In desperate times, solidarity and collaboration are key. Simultaneously, numerous funds have been initiated including the UN COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, EU Joint COVID-19 Recovery Fund and COVID-19 Asean Response Fund, to support research and development of medicines and vaccines, as well as the utilisation of the Asean+3 Emergency Rice Reserve for food security. Organisations across all private, public, and nongovernmental sectors are pooling their resources together in acts of philanthropy.

KUOK Fidero is the dean of the faculty of chemical and food engineering at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. This article was originally published via the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy of the Asian Vision Institute

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