Innovation and approaching the future in times of uncertainty

April 27, 2020

We are living in a tremendous time of uncertainty. That is for certain. Being part of Olin, we are all accustomed to studying, learning, and collaborating to prepare ourselves for a brighter future. And so this period of time can be very disorienting and demotivating. 

But it is helpful to approach the future in something of a flip from how we normally do. Typically, predicting the future gets harder the further out you get. ‘Predicting’ the current weather is pretty easy. Just look outside and up, and you know with 100% certainty if its sunny or raining, warm or cold, windy or calm. Predicting tomorrow’s weather is a little less certain. And next week’s weather is even less so.

In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see an almost inverse of this. Questions about tomorrow and the weeks and months ahead are filled with unknowns and uncertainty:

  • What will tomorrow bring?
  • When will the stay-at-home orders be lifted and in what way?
  • When will testing capacity scale to meet the need?
  • What will school be like in the fall semester?

But, unlike the weather forecasting example, the further you look out on our current situation, the more certain we can be about some things. The entire world is coming together right now to focus on this one challenge and the numerous associated critical issues it creates. And with that, comes higher levels of certainty as we look further into the future:

  • We will get past this pandemic.
    • History shows this, and the global efforts to tackle it are evidence
  • We will develop herd immunity to this.
    • Through some combination of vaccination and the actual spread of the disease through the population
  • We will get back to a functioning society.
    • There will be some new normals like regular mask wearing in public and the end of handshakes as a social gesture.
    • Having travelled a lot to China and other parts of Asia over the years, especially around and in the years after 2003 and SARS, I have seen entire cultural norms evolve that not only involve a bow instead of handshake which was already a norm, but regular use of masks and face-covering in public.
  • We will see, coming out of this, one of the greatest periods of economic expansion we have seen.

Innovation in times of crisis

To give just one example of this, we can look at the period of the great depression and the years and decades that follow.

For any who like math, history, and data analysis, (and who doesn’t really :-) feel free to read this paper recently published in March 2020. The authors analyze innovation and patents in the period surrounding the Great Depression.

We are entering a phase where, in the short term, the economy and our healthcare systems will be put to the test. But if you take a longer view, you will see this as a period of growth and innovation over the next decade.

This paper’s main point is that during and in the decades that followed the Great Depression, the number of patents and innovation went down (quantity) but the quality more than compensated for it. They measure the quality by looking at how often these patents were cited by future patents and the active life in industry of those patents that were filed during that time.

This is further evidence that those innovators that see the new opportunities that rise out of this challenging time will see every opportunity to pursue them and have an impact as before.

As another example of this, a report from the Kaufmann Foundation in 2009 details that 50% of the Fortune 500 companies that year were founded in a recessionary period or during a bear market.

Moving forward

So as we all look for ways to process our current reality and look to the future, I offer the following pieces of advice, developed in consultation with Mark Santello who is a Cognitive Behavior Therapist at McLean Hospital

  • Stay connected and make sure that includes eye contact.
    • When we see others and make eye contact, we activate mirror neurons.
    • This gives us a happy feeling by releasing happy chemicals in our brain.
    • You can see this with babies when a parent or loved one holds the baby’s face close to their own and the baby smiles.
  • Stress is up x%. Make sure you increase your stress relievers by x%
    • Watch your use of alcohol and drugs as a stress reliever - they are ultimately depressants.
  • Turning off information intake before you go to sleep
  • Let people vent and just be with their pain.
    • That is the meaning of compassion: ‘suffer with’
    • Parents have a tough time ‘being with’ their kid’s pain. They want to eliminate it or teach them coping mechanisms.
  • This is a great time to increase your intellectual stimulation
    • There’s a chance that when we get out of this, it will feel like wasted time.
    • Make this time feel like a time of growth.
    • It will help you in the short term, but also help in the long term as we come out of this period and move forward.

As students and faculty, we are used to thinking about the next day, the next assignment, or even the next semester. The world changing impact of this period may offer us an opportunity to think about time on a new scale. Because in this moment, thinking about years and decades makes the future more predictable.

Wishing everyone health, safety and togetherness.

Lee Zamir

Entrepreneur In Residence 

Adjunct Professor