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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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In Our View: Pandemic spurs innovation, transforms society

The Columbian

Eventually, some good will come out of the coronavirus pandemic. Crises inevitably spur innovation that eventually works its way into our daily lives, and there are signals that COVID-19 will have that exact impact.

Presently, those innovations are secondary to immediate concerns about slowing the virus, finding a vaccine, caring for those who have fallen ill, assisting displaced workers and rebuilding the economy. But in looking to the future, it is easy to see that the pandemic will transform American society in ways we cannot yet fathom. Innovation, after all, always has been a cornerstone of capitalism and the American economy.

As Vox.com wrote in July: “It might seem that COVID-19 abruptly disrupted work and leisure, but in many ways, the pandemic simply has led to quicker adoption of technology that was already making inroads in both the business and consumer worlds.”

One obvious example is the growth of remote meetings. From the start of the outbreak, companies have embraced platforms that allow employees to work remotely and remain engaged with co-workers and customers. Years from now, it is conceivable that working at home will be the norm, reducing the need for office space and transforming American cities. There is no need for a 15-story office building if your employees can be just as productive working from home.

Remote connectivity also quickly expanded to education and health care, and it likely will generate long-term changes in those fields.

All of that highlights the need for municipalities to develop robust, reliable telecommunications systems. In October, months before the pandemic, the state Department of Commerce announced an initiative to expand 5G mobile technology in the Puget Sound region, and University of Washington professor Sumit Roy explained: “We are working to seed the future workforce that will be needed by enterprises, startups and the public sector as 5G-enabled products and services become pervasive.”

Changes to that future workforce caused by COVID-19 — either directly or indirectly — will be vast. As Bloomberg News reported this week, many tech startups are taking advantage of the pandemic by hiring college students who would rather work for a year than attend school remotely. For many students (and parents), the thought of paying tuition while not receiving an on-campus experience is untenable.

“There’s a potential for a big shift right now,” said Alexandr Wang of Scale AI Inc. “A lot of students are thinking about it, and hopefully a lot of companies are willing to take a risk on these students. If you’d hire them a year from now, you should be willing to hire them now.”

Who knows? Perhaps one of those companies will hire the next Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard and started the company that became Microsoft.

Whether in technology or education or health care, there is no telling what kind of innovation will receive a push from the pandemic. As Adeo Ressi of The Founder Institute, a startup accelerator, told CNBC: “For startups working in negatively affected industries, this is an unprecedented time to innovate or face extinction.” That requires long-term vision to be enacted in the short term.

Once the immediate concerns about public health and the recession have subsided, COVID-19 will result in some positive alterations to American life. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and the necessity for innovation has rarely been so clear.