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Innovations born out of catastrophic global events
June 1, 2020
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Governments, private enterprises and nonprofits all do their best to plan for any impending disasters -- but sometimes the effect of one is catastrophic just the same. As humankind watches the world-changing events of COVID-19 unfold, there are not many words of consolation or optimism that seem to fit the bill.

It is too soon to tell what the full impact of the virus will be on the global economy, health systems and overall wellbeing of citizens worldwide. One thing is certain though: The necessity and urgency of the situation will force overarching and permanent change. 

Looking a little further back in the 20th century, it’s clear that widespread disasters were often the impetus for systemic change that benefited society in the long run. Stock market crashes, global wars, and worldwide pandemics wreaked havoc, but some of the most important innovations came out of them too. 

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Though few people have extensive knowledge of the global flu pandemic that sickened one-third of the world’s population and killed between 50 million to 100 million people, the 1918 influenza virus was the most severe pandemic in recent history until the current moment. 

What made the spread of the virus particularly potent was the limited medical knowledge of the time. Doctors presumed they had a bacterial disease on their hands, as knowledge about viruses was still limited. There was no flu vaccine, antiviral drugs or antibiotics to treat secondary symptoms. 

When the virus was finally contained through isolation, quarantines and good personal hygiene, a wave of public health efforts and a surge of interest in epidemiology spread around the world. In the US, a national disease reporting system was established. Many governments introduced socialized medicine and strengthened health ministries, and an international bureau – the precursor to today’s World Health Organization – was established in recognition of the need to coordinate beyond national borders.

The Great Depression – 1930s

The stock market crash in 1929 plummeted the United States into the biggest economic crisis of that century. One-quarter of American workers were unemployed, and the stories about bread lines and extreme hardship have become legendary.

Yet that economic challenge also fueled an influx in women entering the workforce. In the 1930s, as male head of households lost their jobs, the number of female workers soared 24 percent from 10.5 million to 13 million.

The ‘30s were also a period of innovation for the nation, despite the ongoing economic crisis. The first working helicopter, magnetic tape recordings, nylon and the ballpoint pen were all patented in that period. In fact, researchers noted that patents spiked not just during The Great Depression, but also during the Long Depression of the late 1800s that preceded it.

Other famous inventions during this time include the magnitude scale for earthquakes, the discovery of nuclear fission, photocopying, the car radio, the first supermarket and the debut of Fortune magazine.

World War II – 1939-1945

The Second World War was the deadliest and broadest war in history. It involved more than 30 countries and touched nearly every part of the globe. But as Bill Gates recently noted in a blog post, “During World War II, an amazing amount of innovation, including radar, reliable torpedoes, and code-breaking, helped end the war faster.”

Many specialized military vehicles, including the jeep, also came out of this period as the United States poured money into producing innovations that could help its side win swiftly. American companies that had been competing to be first-to-market with synthetic rubber agreed to work together and share patents to expedite innovation and address high wartime demand for it. 

Moments of crisis can indeed fuel rapid transformation, as these historic events demonstrate. As the world grapples with yet another major challenge in COVID-19, society and its institutions will no doubt see another wave of change based on the lessons learned from it.

To learn more about these events that reshaped society and resilience amid historic moments of crises, check out these resources:

Innovation lessons from the 1930s, via The McKinsey Quarterly

1918 pandemic virus (H1N1), via The Centers for Disease Control

Innovation and economic crises, via The Atlantic

How the 1918 flu pandemic revolutionized public health, via The Smithsonian

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