Disruptive innovation is often heralded in response to untoward events such as disasters and catastrophes. Prime cases include changes in shipbuilding and seafaring practices in response to the Titanic disaster, U.S. nuclear plant design after the Three Mile Island accident, and bridge designs in response to the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse. Similarly, the COVID-19 Pandemic is acting as a forcing function to drive new innovations in how we work, play, and interact with the myriad of legacy and emerging systems of engagement that we use on a daily basis.
In the current crisis we are facing, every sector of our society is being impacted, and the degree of change varies tremendously depending on our self-imposed response measures. A key example is the need to maintain social distancing in an effort to control the spread of the virus through contact and air-borne pathways, and it is instructive to see how such a response is driving innovation across major industries.
Prior to the Pandemic, healthcare was already facing numerous stress tests including hard-won efforts to manage costs and provide pricing transparency, investments in technology to achieve quality of care metrics, and value-based care programs to root out inefficiencies. Understandably, healthcare operations have been severely strained by social distancing efforts, especially when considering that “contact-less” healthcare operations is a bit of contradiction. However, in response, the healthcare industry is pursuing and implementing innovative solutions at a dizzying pace, given re-prioritization mandates bolstered by regulatory suspensions that have unshackled this traditionally staid industry. For instance, healthcare providers such as Banner Health are pursuing virtual waiting rooms that use sophisticated chatbot AI services to perform advance electronic check-in, thereby reducing in-person times (which could potentially increase disease transmission risk) associated with traditional paper-based check-in methods. Even the provision of care has changed with the mainstream adoption of video, chat, and sensor-based (IoT) telehealth services such as “electronic visits” and remote patient monitoring in lieu of classic in-patient visits. Indeed, a recent survey of over 1,300 physicians by the physician polling website Sermo, found that more than 90% of them are treating some or all of their patients using this modality (Sermo, 2020). And in hospitals and clinics, healthcare operations are investing in screening solutions to identify patrons who may be exhibiting a fever by adopting thermal imaging solutions from the HVAC industry to discreetly and automatically measure the temperatures of people entering and exiting their facilities.
Beyond healthcare, commercial real estate and hospitality are two other industries that are dramatically shifting to new innovations stemming from the impacts of COVID-19 and its attendant social distancing requirements. Building HVAC systems are being modified and/or retrofitted to accommodate both point of presence and centralized disinfection techniques. Examples include the application of fixed UV-C lights, mobile UV-C robots, installation of dry and wet hydrogen peroxide “rain” aerosols, and fitting of electrostatic precipitators into air handler ductwork. Contact and trace technologies are being applied in conjunction with building service and automation systems to monitor and direct patrons. These include digital signage that is able to sequence visitors using visual and verbal cues such as ‘STOP’ and ‘PROCEED’, eliminating arcane fixed building notices and directory boards as well as puerile static floor decals. Additionally, digital house containers including wayfinding, digital concierge, and check-in ‘tile’ APPs provide people with the means for a feature rich and personalized “contact-less” experience in order to get to their desired location, whether it be their hotel room or an office suite. Furthermore, such digital house platforms are able to provide logistics management akin to a traffic process scheduler, providing ground or personal vehicle transportation services and other benefits. While seemingly different, the above innovations are actually quite similar in realization to how the Sports and Entertainment industry manages fan seating: tickets indicating what entrance/gate, aisle, and seat number have been used for over a century, making for a convenient and transparent process. Other structural changes include the use of self-cleaning materials (i.e., impregnated metals, copper-cladding), microbe sensors, and disposable coverings on high-touch surfaces. Good design techniques call for the elimination of surfaces that collect pathogens. One particularly innovative approach is the elimination of drapes and shades by the use of ‘digital glass’ from companies such as View, who provide a way to ‘tune’ the transparency of the exterior glass of a building to different levels. Indeed, such ‘smart windows’ not only make shades unnecessary, but they can adjust automatically in response to the sun, eliminating heat and glare. “When we use smart windows and eliminate blinds, we let in more natural light, provide more views, and significantly improve health outcomes” (View, 2020).
The restaurant and food industry are also adapting swiftly to meet new social distancing realities. The application of Blockchain technology is providing a way to provide trust and confidence across the entire supply chain, including such complex details as distribution and channel partner logistics to the time and location the produce was picked on the farm. Additionally, the crisis has spurred development of vertical farming as a means to better ensure consistency, safety and controlled growth management of foods. Not only do such techniques yield better predictability of food stocks (which is especially relevant given the growing recognition of the influence of the latest Solar minimum on the planet’s climate), but also such techniques permit the use of automation to streamline costs. The introduction of robotic process automation to handle repetitive chores coupled with artificial vision to create Ambient Intelligence that is able to shift production based on demand and other factors represents a huge shift in the ability to address fundamental human food and dietary requirements.
Finally, the telecom industry is adapting to orchestrate the underlaying fabric powering much of the above. Spurred by the need to ensure robust, secure, and resilient broadband connectivity that is ubiquitous and pervasive, planned deployments of 5G and advanced near-field technologies necessary to support sophisticated Location Based Service for contextual based capabilities are being accelerated. Related innovations include the use of “cube satellites” or “CubeSats” to provide planetary coverage, eliminating some of the challenges associated with terrestrial solutions, pan-optical networks, unlocking Terahertz spectrum for new sensor applications useful for certain automation and non-linear applications like ‘seeing around corners’, to finally the development of quantum communication chipsets leveraging atomic physics to ignite network processing capabilities to unheralded new levels, which commercial manufacturers recognize, and accordingly are beginning to incorporate into their next families of mobile devices.
The current Pandemic is a unique opportunity to redefine how we chose to re-architect our legacy infrastructure and systems processes to ensure a brighter and sustainable future than one driven by sustaining innovation alone. By building on the successes of earlier investments in digital systems, mobility, and edge computing technologies, we can apply enabling research findings from health informatics, materials science and other areas of high science along with some of the afore-mentioned disruptive innovations to restore trust and confidence in our way of life, while simultaneously uplifting our economies to achieve new growth opportunities for an even better tomorrow than that before the Pandemic. Adaptation to change is one of the hallmarks of mankind, and the present situation is no different in some ways that that faced by our forefathers: the opportunity is ours to seize.