MacGyver, you probably thought, was a television show from 30 years ago. And it was. But MacGyver is also a verb, now officially recognized as such by the Oxford English Dictionary.
The title character from the TV series was a secret agent who always managed to improvise his way out of critical situations. MacGyver’s extraordinary knack for unconventional problem solving made for good entertainment.
It also affected the colloquial American English lexicon. Today, to “MacGyver” a solution to a problem is to create a fix using existing resources.
It’s been said that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation and creativity. We certainly see that in the age of COVID-19. Auto manufacturers quickly retooled to make hospital ventilators. Clothing companies are making facemasks and protective gowns for healthcare providers. Scientists are working to create a drone-based system to help identify or predict COVID-19 hotspots.
The current pandemic will likely inform the future of things like hospital design, emergency planning, supply chains, international trade and manufacturing, workplace technology, transportation, sporting events, and even (perhaps especially) how we educate and learn.
As a guy named Einstein reminded us, we can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
That view is certainly shared by Steve Brown, the former futurist of Intel Corporation. He’s author of an amazingly timely book entitled The Innovation Ultimatum: How Six Strategic Technologies Will Reshape Every Business in the 2020s.
Steve promotes a positive future where the latest technology is used to create new products and services, optimize operations, empower employees, and delight customers.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Why do extreme circumstances like war and pandemics seem to put people’s innovation instincts into hyperdrive?
Steve Brown: Castaways endure on desert islands because adaptation is our strongest human superpower and survival is our strongest instinct. Just ask any anthropologist.
During the hardships of World War II, we witnessed an unprecedented period of innovation. Modern air travel, satellite communications, antibiotics, and GPS are direct results of those extreme circumstances.
Constraint is a powerful source of inspiration used by engineers, designers, and artists alike. It all begins by asking “How can we…?” questions. How can we design this poster with just four colors, build a phone with only one button, or keep our restaurant alive when we can’t open our premises?
The results: the iconic Obama “Hope” image, the iPhone, and pivots to takeout and home delivery. Constraint and extreme circumstances are rocket fuel for innovation and ingenuity.
Duncan: You advocate the idea of “innovate—or die.” Aside from medical issues related to handling infectious diseases, what effect do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on the way people “build for” the future?
Brown: As they build for the future, businesses must plan both tactical and strategic responses to COVID-19. Tactically, they must ensure the safety of employees, customers, and partners, shore up cash flow, and take the steps needed to maintain operations during these constrained times.
Brands should remember two things here: (1) Consumers are watching closely and will remember how you behave in this time, and (2) Once lifted, stay-at-home orders may be re-imposed again and again. Plan accordingly.
Longer-term, businesses must recognize that they now operate under a new normal. There is no going back to December 2019. Consumers will behave differently and have new expectations of brands, governments, and institutions.
The fragile nature of the modern world has exposed the need for significant investment in business continuity and risk management efforts. To build resilience, businesses will need to invest in automation (robots don’t get sick), cross-training, supplier diversification, decentralization, and many other ways to hedge risk and increase agility.
COVID-19 is “the great accelerator.” The pandemic will accelerate lots of changes that would have happened anyway, given time: Digitization, automation, supply chain innovation, the death of more retailers, more people working from home, and of course accelerated divorces.
Every business leader should invest time to understand the new normal for their business, their industry, for their customers, their suppliers, their channels, and for their brand. We must not underestimate the scale of this shift, and businesses must build an innovation strategy that positions them to thrive in this new normal. Every business is going to feel like a startup again.
Duncan: Just as some people were spooked by trains and early telephones, more recent technology like robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and even 5G networks can raise fears. What kinds of questions should “average citizens” be asking to diminish their concerns about recent or “on the horizon” innovations?
Brown: Many people refused to ride early steam trains, believing that human beings would melt if they traveled faster than 30 miles per hour. Change is both scary and exhilarating. Powerful technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) tend to frighten people. Their worries are stoked by decades of dystopian science fiction and legitimate fears about widespread job losses due to automation.
The more literate we can become about these technologies, the less we fear them. We begin to understand their power for the common good. A recent Price Waterhouse study on the U.K. job market predicts that AI will destroy 7 million British jobs in the next 20 years, but create 7.2 million jobs in the process.
Yes, AI can be used to pump out fake news and accelerate hacking, but AI will also create new jobs and save lives. For example, there’s a good chance that future pharmaceutical drugs, co-designed by AIs, will save the lives of many of your readers. Recently, startup BenevolentAI used its powerful AI to identify a potential treatment for COVID-19 that is now in clinical trials. Thoughtfully and carefully deployed, technology can be an incredible force for good.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.