Innovation in Corona-times: Not business as usual

Joris knoben 3 redactie

In mid-March I gave a lecture to a group of Master students about innovation policy. We discussed, among other things, ‘frugal’ innovation and how this type of innovation is often driven by adversity and a lack of resources. Usually this subject is studied in developing countries, which is why some students thought it was a far-from-my-bed topic. When thinking about innovation, they thought more about high-tech, cool gadgets and tech giants such as Apple, Amazon or Tesla. Other students were fascinated by this different view of innovation. Later that week, there would be a guest teacher who had just completed major research into this type of innovation. A few weeks later he would obtain his doctorate in this research. Whit an emphasis on would…

We are two months and countless virtual classrooms, digital exams, Zoom meetings and phone calls further. And nothing has gone as expected. The world has changed completely in just a few days for both teachers and students. Everything had to be done online under enormous time pressure and without proper preparation. It was, and is, improvising for everyone.

As radical as these changes may be, they are shattered by the disruption many companies are facing. Some companies are forced to close, others hardly have any customers or no longer receive deliveries because borders are closed. National and regional governments announced unprecedented stimulus- and rescue packages. Where at first there was still hope that we could temporarily pause society and then pick up the thread again, the realization that we must drastically adapt our society for a longer period in time is increasing. For many companies, the entire business model on which they are based has been unsettled for a long time.

Despite all the misery, many examples of companies that quickly adapt to the media appeared. Suddenly the concept of ‘frugal’ innovation also proved to be very relevant. They improvised to make up for all kinds of shortages. Shortage of respirators? TUe students were able to build one from simple components. Even Decathlon snorkel masks have been found to be useful for ventilating patients. Face masks were made from packaging material of sterile devices, etcetera.

Some companies that saw their market (partially) collapse quickly managed to enter other markets. Liquor manufacturers (also) started making hand alcohol, and bed linen manufacturers jumped into the mouth mask market. Via via I came in contact with a manufacturer of ‘customized’ whiteboards for offices. Suddenly there is no longer a demand for this, but the machines also proved to be useful for cutting plexiglass in all shapes and sizes. And let there be a huge market for that.

I am certainly not of the school that sees a huge opportunity in this crisis. The situation is dramatic for many companies and it is estimated that the Netherlands has hidden unemployment of 20% or more. The situation reminds me of the winged statement: ‘There is nothing as practical as a good theory’. The insights and theories about ‘frugal’ innovation suddenly appear to be applicable in a context in which I had not thought to see them again soon. They help me understand the world around me a little bit better and they give me new research ideas. Because certainly not all companies know how to make the necessary rapid switchover. But which companies are successful and which are not, and why? Is that the situation in which they entered the crisis (with enough fat on the bones) or does it depend much more on what they do during such a crisis? The honest answer; we do not know.

With colleagues from Erasmus University and de Vrije Universiteit, we are now working on a research proposal on this subject. We would like to submit this proposal for a so-called COVID-19 grant at NOW. And like everyone, it is also improvisation for us. Because in the centre of al the hectic times, the deadline for this subsidy application is very tight. NOW improvises with these grants and we improvise with our application. Everyone does what he or she can with the limited time and resources, so we are all engaged in ‘frugal’ innovation. And therefore I am suddenly working on a subject that I normally teach about. So still a bit ‘business as usual’.

By: Joris Knoben