Innovation in Adversity: How the Coronavirus Crisis Could Help Rediscover Society, and Ourselves

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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First published in the Atlantic on April 1, 2020.

Around the year 1600, the weather in much of Europe substantially cooled, in the latter phase of what has been called the Little Ice Age. It lasted for several centuries. Winters were brutally cold and summers damp and chilly, greatly damaging the growing season. Crops failed. People starved. But the change in weather forced English, French and Dutch fishermen to build improved boats, capable of chasing fish further to the west and surviving the long trips through rough seas. Undoubtedly, some of that new boat-building craft led to the ships of today.

History has shown that innovation often arises in periods of adversity. In recent weeks, such welcome invention seems to be germinating in the current crisis of the coronavirus. Consider for example the many new platforms for online teaching, or the use of cheap “smart thermometers” able to transmit a person’s temperature and position to a large database, or members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing together and apart using their smartphones from 29 different locations.

Innovation in bad times can occur in habits of mind as well as in new technologies. I would suggest that COVID-19 may be creating such a positive change now – by forcing us to slow down, to spend more time in personal reflection, away from the noise and the heave of the world; with more privacy, more stillness; and an opportunity to think about who we are, as individuals and as a society.

Impact Entrepreneurs: Building solutions for a post-COVID-19 world by Tatiana Glad and Gabriela Gandel, Impact HUB

Since the Industrial Revolution and before, the pace of life has been driven by the speed of commerce and business. And the speed of business has been driven by the speed of communication. In the 1830s, the fastest communication device was the telegraph, which could relay about 3 bits per second. That speed rose to about 1,000 bits per second with the advent of the internet in the middle 1980s. Today, the rate is 1,000,000,000 bits per second. The resulting increase in productivity in the workplace, coupled with the time equals money equation, has led to our heightened awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time – and to our frantic lifestyle, with its 15-minute units of efficiency and its urgent appointments and to-do lists and obsessions with money and nonstop stimulation from the external world.

At least for a few months, this terrible natural disaster has freed us from the prison of our time-driven lives. At least for a few months, we have the chance to slow down and to explore our inner selves.

But now that many workplaces are shuttered, now that restaurants are closed, as well as movie theatres and printing shops and department stores; now that many of us spend the twenty-four hours of each day sequestered within the small caves of our homes, we suddenly find ourselves alone with our thoughts. Such isolation is a luxury, of course, as many people are as busy as ever outside their homes: doctors and nurses, workers in supermarkets and pharmacies, post offices, utilities, and other essential public services, as well as those of us preoccupied with young children or elderly relatives needing constant attention.

Read "COVID-19: Protecting people and societies"

Read "COVID-19: Protecting people and societies"
Photo: Kieran Jones

For the rest of us, at home, time and space have opened up in our minds. Even for those who continue our professional lives working online, schedules have become more flexible. Demands have retreated. Daily routines have been interrupted. We suddenly have time – unstructured, free-floating, beckoning time. At least for a few months, this terrible natural disaster has freed us from the prison of our time-driven lives. At least for a few months, we have the chance to slow down and to explore our inner selves – that part of us that imagines, that dreams, that is constantly questioning who we are and where we are going and what is truly important to us. Swept along by the rushing tide of prosperity and speed and hyperconnectedness of the modern world, we have had little opportunity to do so in the past.

Psychologists have long known that creativity thrives on unstructured time, on play, on nondirected “divergent thinking,” on unpurposed ramblings through the mansions of life.

And with such freedom should also come increased creativity. Psychologists have long known that creativity thrives on unstructured time, on play, on nondirected “divergent thinking,” on unpurposed ramblings through the mansions of life. Gustav Mahler routinely took three- or four-hour walks after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Carl Jung did his most creative thinking and writing when he took time off from his frenzied practice in Zurich to go to his country house in Bollingen. In the middle of a writing project, Gertrude Stein wandered about the countryside looking at cows.

Photo: bamagal

What might be the best outcome of the coronavirus? After we have grieved for those lost and repaired our economies, a permanent change in our habits of mind and our lifestyles, a new recognition of the importance of our inner selves, a rediscovery of our values and who we could be.

 

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Alan Lightman

Writer, Physicist, MIT

Alan Lightman is an American writer, physicist, and social entrepreneur. He has a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology and six honorary degrees. Lightman has served on the faculties of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He was the first person at MIT to have a joint faculty position in science and in the humanities. His essays and articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. His novels include Einstein’s Dreams, an international bestseller, and The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award in the US. Some of his recent nonfiction books include The Accidental Universe, and Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. In 2005, Lightman founded the Harpswell Foundation, whose mission is to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia.

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Therese Turner -Jones
Therese Turner -Jones 5 months ago

Completely agree on slowing down and more reflection.  However alongside this is the real human interactions that we miss. Sitting in a restaurant, enjoying the conversations face to face and for me, missing playing tennis.