Creativity and innovation in response to COVID-19

original Gladys H. Morales and Arturo Lavalle,2020-04-21

A man wearing face mask [Photo courtesy of ISINNOVA]

On April 21, the international community celebrates World Creativity and Innovation Day. On the occasion, the UN is calling to embrace the idea that innovation is essential for harnessing the economic potential of nations. The call states “Innovation, creativity and mass entrepreneurship can provide new momentum for economic growth and job creation. It can expand opportunities for everyone, including women and youth. It can provide solutions to some of the most pressing problems such as poverty eradication and the elimination of hunger.” 

Humans have always improved life through creativity and innovation. From the discovery of fire to the electricity and the internet, new thinking has always been fundamental to social progress and economic growth. 

Creativity and innovation often overlap. However, despite being linked, the two terms have a different meaning. Creativity indicates the use of imagination to create new things. It is the ability to perceive the world in new ways and to find solutions while making connections between apparently unrelated factors. On the other hand, innovation refers to the ability to go beyond what already exists through the implementation of something new or by producing a significant improvement of what is already present. Generally speaking, creativity and innovation are typically part of human activities, but they are stimulated and run fast when the need for new or different solutions necessary to solve issues and improve the human condition is stronger.

Over the last years, the two concepts have been especially linked to the need to face an unprecedented wave of change boosted by worldwide trends such as a globalized economy and society, the rise of automation and cognitive roles and, above all, the disruption of new technologies. Until not so long ago, we were all talking about how to deal with the shocking rapidity of digital transformation and with a world increasingly dominated by change and complexity. Nobody could have ever imagined that a new disruptive phenomenon was about to come and rock that world, contributing to take uncertainty at its extreme and urging people and governments to be more creative and innovative to tackle the volatility depending on it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially announced the SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic on March 12, 2020, and it is now spreading quickly across continents. In just a short period of time, our lives have changed with a severe impact on health, businesses, and the economy. It has also affected our freedom to move, and the way we work, engage and interact with others. Many countries have indeed implemented exceptionally rigorous measures in order to prevent further spreading of the virus resulting in a huge economic downturn and an increasing number of people who are experiencing temporary or permanent unemployment.

In this light, we have been called upon to make sacrifices and adjust to new ways of working, respecting social isolation rules, adapting to the new context and in some cases, developing a new sense of solidarity and cohesion. 

While combating the health emergency, which has already caused a tragically large number of human lives being lost, governments and society are also reflecting and acting on how to respond to the economic and social aftermath that will follow the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The crisis triggered by the virus is like no other in our recent history. According to the IMF April World Economic Outlook 2020, global growth by the end of this year will fall to -3 percent, with deep dives of -7 in Germany and -9.1 in Italy.

Even if the magnitude and speed of collapse is unlike anything experienced in our life, the crisis could represent an opportunity to rebuild and develop a better, more inclusive and humane society. In a period of profound crisis, our survival instincts push us to look for new answers and solutions. In 1959, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said that “When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” In order to take advantage of this opportunity, new ways of thinking and solutions are needed, which translates into the need to apply massive doses of creativity and innovation intended as transformative forces that lead to the application of new models in all domains. Creativity and innovation are definitely crucial elements that, especially in this situation, have to guide all policies, strategies and initiatives.

Human history is marked by countless episodes of resilience and new beginnings after tragic events. Each time, creativity, innovation and solidarity have contributed to coming out of dark times and paving the way for a better future. Even on this occasion, we are looking at many examples of solidarity, creativity and innovation applied in different spheres to respond to our current health and emergency. 

Examples of solidarity and innovation in these challenging times are surging from all corners of the world. The level of innovation and engagement coming out of the startup world has been positively surprising. In writing this article, we have been looking for examples of how this transformation is taking place, but quite honestly, it is impossible to make justice to all the efforts of so many companies that are coming together to help communities and governments to fight the health crisis. We are citing only some instances but there are obviously many more.

A computer screen [Photo courtesy of eFree]

In Italy, one of the countries most affected by the virus, a company called eFree offers a free messaging service via instant chatting applications that sends updates every day on the status of COVID-19 making the data easily accessible to everyone at no cost. Data is disaggregated at local, regional and national level as shared by official government sources. This service is also made available free-of-charge on request to local administrations that wish to communicate to their citizens the latest news or rules in place. Another example of messaging service is, an initiative of volunteers based in New York City, that has partnered with essential businesses of all sizes to stop the spread of COVID-19 by providing free, high impact training for frontline workers delivered over text message. Their training is tailored to the needs of essential workers who are risking their lives every day to serve the communities and keep the economy functioning. Data and information are gathered from the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

On April 14, WHO launched an interactive experience on Messenger with support from Sprinklr, to help provide accurate and timely information on the COVID-19 pandemic. In this way, more than 1.3 billion Messenger monthly active users will now be able to ask questions and get quick answers from the WHO’s “Health Alert” interactive service free-of-charge. 

At the peak of the epidemic in Italy, the rapid rising number of infected people caused a shortage of hospital C-PAP masks for sub-intensive therapy. In response to this deficit of medical equipment, Dr. Renato Favero, a brilliant former head physician of the Gardone Valtrompia Hospital in the Lombardy region, together with an engineering company called Isinnova, teamed up with the sporting goods retailer Decathlon to convert ordinary full-face snorkeling masks into homemade ventilators to provide critical air-flow to stop patients’ lungs from collapsing. The group designed a new component to guarantee the connection to the ventilator called link Charlotte valve, which was created by using 3D printing. Unlike the standard respirator valve, the link is easy to make, so it is possible for all makers to try to print it correctly. The innovation has now been adopted by other nations helping hospitals facing an overload of COVID-19 patients needing sub-intensive therapy. Another aspect worth mentioning about this innovation is that the inventors have patented the link valve to make its use free so that the invention is made available to anyone at no profit.

Connected to the COVID-19 pandemic is another innovative and voluntary project launched by the Italian architects Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota named C.U.R.A. - Connected Units for Respiratory Ailment - which involves an international task force of designers, engineers, medical professionals, and military experts that have joined forces to work on capacity building in Intensive-Care Units (ICU). The aim of the project is to use repurposed shipping containers to create plug-in bio-containment pods that can be quickly deployed in cities around the world, promptly responding to the shortage of ICU space in hospitals and to the spread of the disease. Each pod can work autonomously or can be connected to other pods by an inflatable structure to create multiple modular configurations (from 4 beds to over 40), which can be installed in just a few hours. Some pods can be placed in proximity to a hospital to expand the ICU capacity, while others could be used to create self-standing field hospitals of varying sizes. In the last weeks, hospitals in the countries most affected by COVID-19, from China to Italy, from Spain to the USA, have been struggling to increase their ICU capacity to admit a growing number of patients with severe respiratory diseases, in need of ventilators. Whatever the evolution of this pandemic, it is expected that more ICUs will be needed internationally in the next few months, which makes these collaboration efforts particularly worth noticing.

European Union's poster on coronavirus prevention

[Photo courtesy of European Commission]

In general, some major private sector companies have reinvented and transformed their current business and organizational models. Examples are Armani, Lamborghini, Calzedonia or Klopman, which have decided to convert some plants, or part of their businesses, to produce medical devices, mainly medical uniforms, scrubs and masks. Innovation is also expected to take place at an organizational level starting with the implementation of social distancing measures and sanitation at the workplace.

An advanced model in this respect is offered by Ferrari, which launched a particularly complex health protocol to prevent coronavirus contagions among its employees. The most famous carmaker in the world, example of creativity and innovation in itself, will allow employees to take blood tests to be able to exclude being infected before returning to work. In addition, the staff will be equipped with an app that will consent them to monitor any symptoms of Covid-19 infection and track their movements. In this way, if someone were infected, it would be possible to reconstruct the chain of people with whom he or she came into contact. Similar measures have already been taken in China and South Korea, where face recognition and tracking technologies based on social media apps have being successfully used to keep the spread of the virus under control. The Ferrari Health Protocol will probably become a model for other industries and companies, even in non-automotive sectors.

Focusing on the production point of view, among the damages of the coronavirus is the interruption of the global supply chains to the industry, which have caused the slowdown, or even the blockage, of most of the activities, contributing to the ongoing economic depression. In order to overcome this issue, the innovative trend that will be pursued is remanufacturing. In short, remanufacturing refers to the dismantling of a product or component that has already been used, refurbishing it and bringing it back on the market. This will increase the advantage for: the manufacturer that will face lower costs and will be less dependent from global supply chains; for the end consumer, who will spend less; for the environment, with less consumption of raw materials and energy and less waste to be disposed of; and for the employment sector since remanufacturing needs a higher rate of human labor allowing to recover a part of the frictional unemployment generated by automation. Companies like Renault or BMW or Airbus are pioneers of this innovative business model and are already regenerating significant percentages of their components.

A medic works in the field. [Photo courtesy of UNFPA]

Governments and the international community are also finding innovative ways to respond to all spheres of the crises. With millions of people forced to stay at home, the European Union has asked Netflix, Facebook and YouTube to reduce streaming quality to avoid overloading the web. This allows everyone to use the internet, be it for work, distance learning or for leisure.

The UN is also finding new ways to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and to humanitarian crises that are being exacerbated by the measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. On April 17, the United Nations Innovation Network issued a Special Edition of the UN Update that highlights how 30 UN entities are leveraging innovative approaches to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In addition to the efforts of different agencies to provide up-to-date and reliable information and statistical data on the COVID-19 pandemic, some agencies are delivering real-time to near real-time data on the impact of the pandemic on different sectors. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has launched an open-access tool to help countries mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on food and agriculture. Through this tool, users get real-time information on how the pandemic is affecting food prices, value chains, and food security. The tool also generates a map of food chain disruptions and a map of food prices variations. The aim is that policy makers can use the tool to make better-informed decisions. The World Food Programme (WFP) is scaling up remote food security monitoring to collect, analyze and visualize data on food security, health access, markets, livelihoods, and water access in near real-time. 

Using innovative modeling techniques, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is supporting policy makers by providing reliable estimates on labor market indicators. The ILO is also using an innovative nowcasting model to estimate the number of working hours lost due to the crisis. According to the ILO, almost 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide and between 8.8 and 35 million additional people may be in working poverty worldwide. Income losses for workers are expected to be between US$860 billion and US$3.4 trillion by the end of 2020.

As a member of the Digital Finance Task Force, UN Women has published a special newsletter highlighting emerging uses of digital financing to respond to the crisis around the world. UN Women has also developed the Women Count Data Hub, which provides up-to-date data on COVID-19 cases, including new disaggregated data on the total number of cases by sex and age. It also includes infographics on violence against women and girls.

Reliable population data is essential, specially during a pandemic. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is supporting National Statistical Offices around the world to address the implications of the COVID-19 on the preparations and implementation of the 2020 census round. UNFPA has created a dashboard that allows visualizations of the implications of COVID-19 on the censuses.

One of the sectors that has been most affected by the pandemic is the travel and tourism sector. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)’s World Tourism and Travel Council, in collaboration with partners, is hosting discussions on the future of tourism. The organization is also issuing a series of calls for proposals from start ups with innovative ideas to design solutions that can help re-launch the sector post-COVID-19. The UNWTO and WHO have also developed Guidelines and Recommendations for the travel and tourism sector to help stop the spread of the virus and to assist the sector to prepare to welcome tourists safely. 

The list of interventions is long, from the use of drones to deliver humanitarian aid to the use of social media such as TikTok and Instagram as channels to advocate for the care of the elderly, the UN is tackling every sphere of development aid to help member countries to cope with the pandemic. For a more detailed summary of some of the interventions implemented by the United Nations, please refer the COVID-19 Special Edition of the UN Update. 

Officials in the meeting [Photo courtesy of UNWTO]

About the authors:

Arturo Lavalle is the head of Research and Development at the Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi in Rome.

Gladys H. Morales is the CEO of GHMG Strategies. SRL, a consulting firm specialised in digital transformation, innovation, partnerships and resource mobilization.


World Health Organization, United Nations Innovation Network, Creativity at Work, European Parliament,  Techcrunch, npr, Oxford English Dictionary, The Humanitarian, Messenger News

This article was originally published on the Global Poverty Reduction and Inclusive Growth Portal of the International Poverty Reduction Centre in China and on China Development Gateway

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