“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

Maya Angelou

Capturing true innovation is elusive. Often, it takes a great deal of hard work. And, even if you do put in the extra hours and generate the brain trust, it is not surprising to realize that meaningful innovation does not result. It can be a very frustrating process.

Some great minds developed the Design Thinking process aimed at guiding the innovation process. And, sometimes something innovative has developed from this process. Having a formalized process is absolutely important to realize gains, no argument. But, it on its own is insufficient to guarantee successful innovation.

What is innovation anyway, let us define it first.

“Innovation is the creation, development, and implementation of a new product, process, or service, with the aim of improving efficiency, effectiveness, or competitive advantage.”

Okay, that is a great textbook definition. It captures the theme well. But, how do we actually get there?

With the increasing competition, dynamic environment, and facing global market, innovation is considered a potential competitive advantage in an organization. Several attributes of innovation have been used frequently in the literature, but it is most often seen as a result of an extreme catalyst of some sort that forces innovation to occur. The catalysts often produce massive changes and developments. This article focuses on the role of several important catalysts in sustaining and enhancing innovations.

What does the jet engine have in common with penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic? Both, as it turns out, were born in 1928, but it took the crisis of the Second World War for either to be brought into the mainstream and deployed. The war’s stresses also served as catalyst to usher in both the nuclear age and the age of computing. All four of these developments then helped lay the foundation for human society for the remainder of the century, and indeed continue to do so today.

Pandemics too have caused crises throughout human history: the bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid. The human toll of each helped catalyze quantum improvements in public health practice which have benefited all succeeding generations.

COVID-19 has thrust us into a new worldwide crisis. Illness and deaths climb daily around the globe while the macro-economy continues in free-fall. But once again, necessity can serve as mother of invention. Once again, crisis can serve as catalyst for fundamental innovations that will lay the foundations for a better future.

What are some of the different catalysts that spawn innovations:

  • War
  • Famine
  • Natural Disasters
  • Disease
  • Social and Cultural Change
  • Revolts to Political Leadership

Some innovations that we use everyday that were derived from wartime include:

Canned Foods – As Napoleon and his army romped across Europe, the General needed to find a way to deliver enormous quantities of good-enough food to the front lines. And so in 1809, the French government held a contest to solve this problem, with a cash prize of 12,000 francs. This sum was awarded to Nicolas Appert, who designed a sealed glass jar that could be produced en masse in factories. Appert used his 12,000 francs to build such a factory, but the British burned it down on their rampage through France in 1814.

Duct Tape – An Illinois factory worker and mother of two sons who were serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Vesta Stoudt noticed a minor problem with ammunition boxes that worried her. Soldiers had to open the boxes by pulling a small piece of paper attached to a strip of tape, but the paper could easily tear off without opening the box. Stoudt started exploring fixes, and in the process, she invented duck tape. Stoudt wrote President Roosevelt to tell him about the problem and her solution:

“Now your son, my son, and our neighbor’s son must pull this tape off some way, perhaps with his teeth or with his knife, if he is lucky enough to have one – nine chances out of ten he hasn’t any. The enemy has had time to kill hundreds of our men, while they have been trying to open the box to get the cartridges… Please Mr. President, do something about this at once, not tomorrow or soon, but now.”

Shortly after Stoudt sent her letter, the War Production Board contracted Johnson & Johnson to develop her idea for mass-production, and duck tape was on its way to becoming a ubiquitous part of American life.

In general, disaster damages do decrease with economic development and wealth, which seem to be part of a solution to protecting human lives and property from the increasing threat of natural disasters. However, several recent disasters, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in New York City and the Houston Flooding in 2016, both of which caused extensive losses even in affluent areas, reveal that economic development is not a panacea for natural disaster response.

The rise of the West is often traced back to the Black Death of the mid-1300s, which killed over 40% of Europe’s population. For example, some historians think that the resulting labour scarcity increased the bargaining power of peasants in the West, which led to the end of serfdom and to higher standards of living but failed to bring about institutional change in the East.

Many parallels between COVID-19 and the Black Death have been drawn, but most of them are unhelpful. In a medieval economy, fewer people meant more land per person and a higher income for the average citizen. The opposite is true in today’s knowledge-based economy, since ideas are non-rivalrous and, unlike land, can be used by everyone simultaneously.

In modern economies, the larger, more diverse, and interconnected a population is, the more ideas and wealth it is capable of generating. Large, interconnected societies allow more people to participate in innovation, which adds to collective knowledge and gives others in the society better tools and instruments to make further discoveries. In a world where wealth is derived from ideas rather than land and objects, our greatest resource is our social networks, which act as “collective brains.”

So, what can we expect from these collective brains? Will there be ground-breaking innovations in artificial intelligence? Will machine learning, deep learning and neural networks rule all of our futures? Will Big Data final start to realize a return on investment? How will the internet of Things play in the next new normal world? Will cloud evolve and shift to the network fabric with Edge Computing? Or, will cyber security continue to plague us all? Is the field of data science the next great transformational catalyst that evolves from this COVID nightmare?

Innovators pride themselves as masters of disruption. Divining what those disruptions may look like over 5 to 10-year horizons is a constant struggle. But COVID-19 has delivered our future world to us today; there is to be no more guesswork. The clear evidence? The future will be virtualized. This shift to the (“socially-distanced”) virtualization of all business models was already fated to happen one day. Rather than occurring as a normal evolution over a multi-year span, COVID-19 has pushed the virtualization of business upon us with immediate effect. And crucially, not only are business models now being disrupted, business processes are too. Tomorrow’s winners will be those who can quickly master both.

We are re-imagining meetings and work-spaces to unlock new forms of collaboration, help people and teams stay connected and engaged, and ensure fluid communication across organizations.

Case Study: Microsoft Teams offers an end-to-end meeting solution that scales to support your meeting, calling, and large-scale event needs. Announced during the summer of 2020, Together mode is a new meeting experience in Teams that helps participants feel closer together even when they are apart by placing them in a shared background. This makes meetings more engaging by showing participants’ faces and body language, making it easier to pick up on the non-verbal cues that are so important to human interaction. Now, Microsoft are announcing new Together mode scenes, including auditoriums, conference rooms, and a coffee shop – all available later this year. Presenters will be able to select a scene from the gallery as the default for all meeting attendees. They are also introducing the use of machine learning in Together mode to automatically scale and center meeting participants in their virtual seats, regardless of how close or far they are from their camera, creating a more realistic visual experience.

Some argue that these virtual meeting tools, like Teams, Zoom, and WebEx are now bigger and more important tools than the advent of the web browser. COVID as thrust these virtualized meeting tools to the forefront and advanced them at a stunning and accelerated pace that we would not have realized if not for COVID.

So, have COVID generated new and interesting technological innovations for the betterment of mankind? I say, yes, it has and it will continue to do so for the rest of 2021 and into 2022. COVID is a catalyst that is innovating our new virtualized world and work place. Once again, mankind will rise from the fiery ashes like the mighty phoenix of folklore tells us it will…

————————–MJM ————————–


Frey, C.B. (2020). The Great Innovation Deceleration. MIT Sloan Management Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved on February 1, 2021 from, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-great-innovation-deceleration/

Ghose, S. (2020). Crisis as Catalyst: The COVID-19 Impact on Innovation. The Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, Berkley, University of California. Retrieved on February 1, 2021 from, https://scet.berkeley.edu/crisis-as-catalyst-the-covid-19-impact-on-innovation/

John. (2015). 7 War-Time Inventions That You Use Every Day. ATI – All that is Interesting. Retrieved on February 1, 2021 from, https://allthatsinteresting.com/about-all-thats-interesting

Spataro, J. (2020). Seven ways we’re empowering every person and every organization to thrive in a new world of work. Microsoft. Retrieved on February 1, 2021 from, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/09/22/seven-ways-were-empowering-every-person-and-every-organization-to-thrive-in-a-new-world-of-work/

————————–MJM ————————–

About the Author:

Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).  He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.