The Presidential and VP debates so far have covered a lot of important topics. Realistically, however, a responsible President will need to spend most of the next 1-2 years fighting COVID-19 and revitalizing our economy. Only then will he be able to properly address the generational issues of inequality, racism and climate change. Experts believe a viable vaccine will be available in Q1/Q2 of 2021, and then, if we vaccinate 1 million people daily, it will still take us another year to vaccinate the entire population of the United States.
One of the most fascinating aspects of innovation is the clarity that it provides society. Whether its scientific or social, innovations provide us with an obviously better way to do something. This is a time crying out for massive amounts of innovation to treat COVID-19, prepare for future coronaviruses, re-start public education and to develop new business models for restaurants, airlines and other important industries decimated by the COVID-19 shutdown.
If we have more debates, I would like to see both candidates further articulate how we will find new treatments for COVID-19 and future coronaviruses. Vice President Biden has already released a comprehensive, $700 billion plan for supporting R&D and innovation through American universities, regional partnerships and federal labs. He can take it one step further by laying out how America’s vast R&D infrastructure can be mobilized specifically to develop next generation PPE, ventilators, vaccines and treatments. Furthermore, both candidates should outline how they plan to move innovations from the lab to market in historic time.
In the absence of leadership or a vision for America in the era of coronavirus(es), people are grasping for solutions to a multitude of problems. In public education, chaos has reigned for nearly ten months now. In his recent book, “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough”, Dr. Pawan Dhingra, a Professor of American Studies at Amherst College, highlights the trend among American parents to increasingly rely on private education companies to supplement the education their children are receiving in local public schools. According to Dr. Dhingra, Kumon locations in the United States, for instance, have increased over 25% in recent years. Similar programs, such as Mathnasium and Russian School of Math, have seen similar growth.
Remote learning is putting more power in the hands of private education companies. Desperate school districts worldwide have no choice but to turn to large companies like Google and small education startups to provide virtual alternatives to the traditional classroom experience. But private education companies have not proven their ability to scale even a little. Many school districts have quickly pulled back from contracts with private online schools when it became clear that these companies didn’t have enough qualified instructors or the ability to manage multiple classrooms simultaneously.
The next President owes us a vision as to how America’s children will continue to keep pace over the next two years with strong technology and minimal disruption. He must articulate how artificial intelligence will help with learning, and how the public sector will help scale up the best solutions from the thousands of EdTech startups currently working with America’s public schools and colleges. His vision for education should include a plan for the rapid deployment of broadband, 5G networks and improved connectivity for the 20-30% of Americans who lack proper access to it.
Part of the President’s job will also be to ensure that American companies and institutions have the resources they need to pivot. America’s large organizations – from multinational corporations to hospitals, universities and government agencies, are all struggling to transform themselves in the age of COVID-19.
In his new book, “Eat, Sleep, Innovate”, Scott Anthony, the Managing Partner of Innosight, a global innovation strategy firm, writes that the critical component for successful innovation is the culture that an organization creates. Anthony and Innosight have worked with many of the Fortune 500, as well as public agencies such as UNICEF, to design and launch accelerators, open innovation labs and commercialization programs. The key factor that differentiated the successful efforts was something Anthony calls “BEAN” or Behavior Enablers, Artifacts and Nudges that drive organizations to create value, create a culture focused on actions, and democratize innovation within the organization. Anthony believes there is strong evidence that companies that create a global culture of innovation and truly empower their employees to directly innovate will ultimately address the needs of customers and stakeholders alike.
America’s large companies are not known for their innovative cultures. They are known for acquiring Silicon Valley startups with innovative technologies. But the disruption caused by COVID-19 requires more than acquisitions. The airlines can’t just acquire more fuel efficient airplanes. They need to build innovative cultures to re-imagine the experience of air travel, from airplane size, to emissions and safety precautions. The role of the President, and the US Government, will be to support the industry with the resources it needs to experiment and innovate, and to ensure that the regulatory framework allows for innovation while safeguarding our safety.
In his recent book, “Outside the Box”, Mark Levinson, a former editor with The Economist, reviews the history of globalization over the last 100 years, and the key points where innovation, corporate strategy and public policy came together to change the world for better and worse. Levinson shares the story of container shipping, which really took off after innovations in the design of the containers and their delivery systems were matched up with global standards agreed upon by private industry and governments.
While Levinson doesn’t discuss it, its clear that the world will need to reach similar agreement on global standards for emerging COVID-19 related treatments and vaccines coming from different companies, labs and nations. American Presidential leadership will be key to this. In addition to outlining a vision for the equitable production and distribution of COVID-19 treatments for Americans, the next President must rally world leaders around a global strategy to tame the virus and put in place a strategy for the next one. The virus knows no international boundaries or trade agreements.
On October 15th and/or the 22nd, this is what I would like to see Vice President Biden and President Trump debate. While I care deeply about RBG’s replacement and climate change, and have marched for racial justice for decades, what defines our lives right now is COVID-19.