What's the difference between an explorer and someone who is lost? It's the mindset.
Over the past few weeks, I have participated in several virtual events about the post COVID-19 world. My message is always the same: while it's true that times are very tough today – with much human suffering and historically high unemployment rates all in a matter of two months – this narrative misses an important point. Whenever our society has faced crises, human ingenuity coupled with our innovative spirit finds a way out, and we have always won in the long run. If history is any guide, I am confident that we will prevail again. So, I remain bullish about the future.
My optimism is not based on blind faith. It's based on our historic record of innovation. Here are a few examples that offer us both wisdom and hope for the future:
- In 1870, the life expectancy in the United States was about 40 years. One hundred and fifty years later, it is now close to 80 years. This amplification of life expectancy is true for much of the world. While part of these impressive gains is attributable to decline in child mortality, health care innovations like antibiotics are a significant determinant of our long-run success. Today, malnutrition and extreme poverty are at historic lows worldwide.
- London, like many other major world cities, was hit with a great problem in the late 1800s. With more than 50,000 horses transporting people every day, it was “drowning in horse manure.” On average, a horse produced between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day, so you can imagine the scale of the problem. The manure on the streets attracted flies and affected the health of the citizens, and hence came to be known as the Great Manure Crisis of 1894. This prompted The Times to declare that, “London will be buried under nine feet of manure by 1950.” Of course, we all know now that this dire prediction did not come to pass. Cars came to our rescue. Horses ceased to be a transportation option, and this problem fizzled out.
- Over the last 50 years, personal computers, cell phones, the Internet, digital devices, and social networking software have transformed every conceivable industry, increased productivity, and improved societal welfare. These technologies have enabled us to go remote virtually overnight and remain productive in the face of COVID-19 disruption. Would we have been able to face the lockdown with such resilience without the innovations spawned in the past 50 years? I doubt it. We have to thank our spirit of innovation that drives human progress forward.
By every meaningful measure involving welfare, productivity, and comfort, life today is better than it was 100, 40, and even 20 years ago. Because of INNOVATION. Innovation is the engine that drives human progress. Innovation is a message of hope. Innovation helps develop breakthrough ideas and transformative solutions that contribute to human progress. Innovation is risk management for the future.
Innovation is not just limited to companies and countries. The spirit of innovation lives in each and every one of us. It is embodied in our mindset. Just look at our own reactions to the pandemic. We adapted to the new reality and moved into the virtual world overnight. Without COVID-19, such total transition would have taken years. We have now learned that we have the capacity to adapt to the virtual world and still be highly productive. Barriers have been broken. We will now take that learning forward to re-imagine new possibilities in the digitally convergent world.
What is in store for the future? Amidst all the current uncertainty, I can confidently say that 10 years from now I know our lives will be even better. Advanced technologies – including augmented reality, machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing – coupled with what author Eric Topol calls a “propitious convergence of a maturing Internet, near-ubiquitous connectivity, and ever-increasing bandwidth and remarkable pocket computers in the form of mobile phones,” will help us imagine new worlds and conquer new frontiers.
All we have to do is keep the innovative spirit alive and well. If we do so, our best is yet to come.
Dunton Family Dean
D'Amore-McKim School of Business