Social and technological changes strengthen the power of innovative solutions.
A very affordable hospital ventilator, an AI-system that listens for coughing sounds to detect coronavirus infections, and a system that uses charged particles to fight bacteria and viruses. These are just three technologies that have been developed in recent months to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
A huge shift in mentality resulting from COVID-19 is forcing us to change
The urgency of finding solutions to societal challenges has never been greater. Switching to new platforms, introducing new working methods, had to be done very quickly. And it happened! Leaders in large companies were astonished to see things happening in one month that would normally have taken ten years. Why was it suddenly possible? Simply because it had to be. The urgency of finding solutions now, the willingness to change, seeing that it is actually possible: this caused a very powerful shift in mentality.
Democratisation of innovation
Willingness to innovate is not the only piece of the puzzle. The means to make it happen must also be there. For years, innovation was limited by technical challenges. To make a prototype, everything had to be made from scratch. You had to design and manually solder printed circuit boards, prototypes had to be connected to large - and expensive - computer systems. Product development therefore had a lot of bottlenecks and was mostly reserved for large companies.
But innovation within large companies is not always fast. That is a problem, especially at times of crisis. It is essential that innovations are developed in the very short term, otherwise society runs the risk of problems becoming insurmountable. Fortunately, small organisations can now make an increasing contribution to innovation, partly because the means to enable innovation have become increasingly accessible. Single-board computers are an example: they can usually be bought for less than a hundred euros and can then be used in any development.
By giving more people access to the means to enable innovation, we can collectively think out of the box faster and create an ecosystem of innovation. Large companies no longer have the monopoly on innovation. With a good brain, energy and enthusiasm and a cheap computer, an incredible amount can be achieved.
Securing future innovation
It is wonderful to see how we as a society have adapted so quickly to a changed world. However, this flexibility and creativity should not be limited to times of crisis.
This means that we must promote an innovative mindset as much as possible. The idea that innovation is within reach of everyone must be anchored in society. That is the reason behind initiatives like the Raspberry Pi competition. This competition challenges young people to find a solution to a social problem with a cheap computer. You can see from the entries of the 2019-2020 competition that it is not just a gimmick, entries include high-tech tactile sticks, smart water reservoirs, gas and particulate matter meters to fight air pollution showing these young people have the right mindset. Of course one competition does not get us all the way there. These types of projects should be part of the educational structure. In this way we can teach new generations that innovation is not only the domain of the Googles and Apples of this world, but of everyone.