Innovation in the Age of Pandemics
Pandemics are devastating. There are losses of loved ones. There are economic and societal losses.
Pandemics disrupt most aspects of our lives. But throughout the ages, pandemics have also ushered in new technology and ways of doing things. From the Plague in Athens (429 BC) to the current Covid-19 coronavirus, innovation has followed.[i] Below are examples of innovations that stemmed from two pandemics–the Black Death and the 1918 Influenza.
The 14th century plague pandemic, known as the Black Death, was actually a combination of 3 pandemics and lasted for over 100 years. It eventually wiped out about 50% of the population in Europe[ii][iii]. As devastating as this pandemic was, it also contributed to many innovations, just a couple of which are listed here.
Clocks and other time pieces. Because so much of the population was killed, manual labor became scarce and those who survived worked more. It became critical for both workers and their bosses to track the longer hours worked. As a result of this need, mechanical clocks and hourglasses, which helped workers and bosses keep better track of time, were invented.
Eyeglasses. Until the invention of eyeglasses in the 14th century (perhaps earlier on a very limited basis), much of the potential workforce could not see well, either because they were near- or far-sighted or because as they approached midlife, their eyesight worsened.[iv] With much of the population reduced by the pandemic, there was an increased need for productivity not just for those performing manual labor and the burgeoning middle classes, but also church-related workers like priests and scholars. Eyeglasses, then, significantly increased productivity by allowing more people to work longer.
1918 Influenza Pandemic
An ad for dixie cups reads: “This is the sanitary age — the age of dixie cups… touched only by you.”[v] We might think that this ad appeared recently, reflecting our concern about the spread of Covid-19. But dixie cups were introduced in 1907, and these words were from an ad shortly thereafter. At that time, the use of paper cups was limited mainly to railway stations and trains. By the end of the next decade, however, single-use cups were ubiquitous–in theaters, hotels, retail stores, and casual restaurants. What triggered the change? There were many factors, but the 1918 flu pandemic was instrumental. Here’s why. Before paper cups, most people drank water from public water pumps or reusable community cups that were passed from person to person, along with any germs which were also spread. The 1918 pandemic raised the concern about the spread of germs and that in turn, made the need for single-use cups more attractive.
Paper cups weren’t the only innovation accelerated by the pandemic. The 1918 influenza brought many changes particularly in the field of medicine. Blood transfusions were one example. It also introduced innovations related to vaccines, such as the identification of viruses, (“very small agents).” New vaccine tools that were created at this time led to the development of vaccines from fertile chicken eggs, which according to the CDC are used today. [vi]
A discussion of pandemics would be incomplete without discussing the controversy surrounding wearing masks. Take an article, for example, which read: “A draft resolution led to a heated city council debate, with one official declaring the measure ‘autocratic and unconstitutional,’ adding that ‘under no circumstances will I be muzzled like a hydrophobic dog.’ It was voted down.” As with the paper cups, we might think that this quote was recent. Actually, it’s a quote about the “mask slackers” during the 1918 pandemic.[vii] There were, of course, arguments on both sides. On the one side were proponents. There was a massive campaign to convince citizens (mostly men and boys) to wear masks to avoid spreading the flu germs. “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases.” “Wear a mask. Stamp out the Spanish Influenza.” “Wear a mask and save your life.” But as noted above, not everyone was convinced. Some viewed masks as “feminine” or intrusive as this poster read: “The new symbol of tyranny—muzzle.” And then there’s this headline: “Three shot in struggle with mask slacker.” Regardless of the root causes of dissention, convincing populations of the importance of following a new direction has never been easy.
Lessons for business analysts and project managers.
Influencing. It’s always difficult to effectively persuade people who feel strongly about an issue to change their mind, their feelings, or their actions. But as project professionals, we are called upon to do just that. It’s never easy to get resistant stakeholders and project team members on board. Influencing, though, is part of our project life. As BAs and PMs, we need to be able to influence people over whom we have no authority. What we can learn from the mask example is that trying to use rational persuasion, that is, the use of facts, figures, data, and science alone to influence is rarely effective unless we add an emotional component as well.
Innovation. Pandemics, as devastating as they are, can be a time of great innovation. This current corona virus pandemic is a time for reexamining how to best work remotely, how to lead and interact with virtual teams, how to teach and learn effectively and safely, not just in our schools, but also in classes ad at conferences. And now’s a good time to reexamine our work, including our processes, our technology and new ways to influence and build trust.
We are living in “interesting” times, filled with disruption and uncertainty. It is this type of environment, however, that is fertile ground for change. New ideas and processes that will surface as a result of the current pandemic are sure to move us in a new direction. These changes will be more than uncomfortable for most of us. However, as business analysts and project managers we need to lead our stakeholders and project teams through these challenges. That has always been part of our job. And our organizations will look to us to help them take advantage of innovations
[ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexberezow/2014/05/12/black-death-the-upside-to-the-plague-killing-half-of-europe/#35e267fb70d3. The current pandemic has already changed vaccine development, for example.
[iii] https://www.science20.com/science_20/how_bubonic_plague_made_europe_great-29378, Different articles put the number between 25 and 75% and the length of these pandemics from 4 and 120 years. I think the difference is due to the definition of the Black Death. For example, if we include just the bubonic plague, the number of years is much shorter.