Inventions Birthed by Necessity

If necessity is the mother of invention, the new coronavirus is quickly birthing a lot of innovations. Parts of U.S. society may be forever changed by this pandemic. As of 13 April 2020, the United States had over 550,000 confirmed cases and nearly 22,000 deaths, with emergency preparedness and response agencies preparing for much more to come. Combinations of social distancing, home quarantine, closure of schools and universities, and case isolation are now being extensively practiced. Creativity is being implemented each day to overcome response barriers to those at work and meet the needs of those asked to stay at home.

Although it is unclear how long current social distancing, quarantine, closure, and isolation measures will be required, most experts agree it will be months, if not longer. Laboratories around the world are working on developing a vaccine. However, mass production of vaccines and antivirals typically take 12-18 months. Limits on in-person interactions require new approaches to keep society functioning and the economy running. Companies have been quick to create workarounds to keep people virtually connected in a physically disconnected environment.

Keeping Society Connected

New solutions are being developed to keep society connected. Telemedicine consultations are being used to determine if someone requires testing and to limit unnecessary face-to-face interactions. An artificial intelligence platform called AskSophie allows patients to conduct self-assessments of their risk of contracting the virus. Many schools are now using virtual classrooms and teleconferencing to finish their spring semesters, though it seems possible this national emergency will extend into the next school year. Even in states without broad stay-at-home orders, governments and industries are encouraging employees to work from home so as to limit exposure to the virus.

By necessity, global supply chains are being reengineered to deliver goods and services right to the front door. Trends started by the likes of Amazon, FedEx, and even grocery store deliveries over the past several years are expanding. Local retailers and restaurants also are expanding their services in this way in order to survive. Some industries are in an “adapt or die” moment.  

COVID-19 has changed the way people live and work, with many more changes to come. When the threat has passed, society will not be the same.

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) is being used to support industrial supply chains severed by the virus. For example, when one Italian hospital needed replacement valves for an oxygenation mask and the supplier had none in stock, FabLab in Milan was able to meet the request by 3D printing the valves. Others are repurposing or innovating new uses of available technologies. There are anecdotal reports of  physicians using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines normally used for treating sleep apnea for respiratory therapy short of intubation. Cell phone location data is being considered as a tool to trace possible virus exposure (although this has raised privacy concerns).

Perhaps there will soon be widespread use of augmented- or virtual-reality systems for tele-vacationing, socializing, or other methods of relieving stress. These tools provide the means for people to feel connected even if they are many miles apart. New uses of the technology continue to be found. The digital environments have literally gone from novelties to technologies that are being used in the fight against COVID-19, as doctors use the technology to “virtually” peer into the lungs of victims to make diagnoses.

Addressing Public Concerns

Governments are also going to have to innovate to manage a plethora of policy and regulatory questions resulting from COVID-19:

  • How will the presidential election take place if the nation is still in the midst of this national emergency?
  • How will social safety nets be expanded quickly?
  • How long will social distancing be required?
  • How will the timelines for relaxing social distancing measures be determined? 

Government agencies will need to prioritize new areas of scientific discovery and technology development. Timelines for development and approval of vaccines and therapeutics such as antivirals must be shortened and testing capability – particularly point-of-care diagnostics – ramped up. But that is just one area. The suddenly expanded use of online services is also likely to cause a reevaluation of underlying issues such as extending broadband communications to underserved communities and providing a minimum level of information, communication, and technology to students of all ages. Workers or students cannot be expected to participate in tele-work and tele-education without the necessary tools.

This national emergency will eventually end, but the longer it lasts, the less likely that the pre-pandemic business-as-usual ways will return. Businesses that were teetering on the brink will likely not survive. The continued use of virtual interactions in some nontraditional settings such as in schools, work, and medicine will likely continue. Going back to the old ways of long commutes may not be as desirable when one will be able to interact just as effectively without being physically in the same space.

Daniel M. Gerstein

Daniel M. Gerstein works at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He formerly served as the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2014. Gerstein’s latest book, “The Story of Technology: How We Got Here and What the Future Holds,” was published in October 2019.



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