The Covid-19 crisis and subsequent lockdown, now into its fourth month in the UK, is the most disruptive factor affecting the country’s economy since the Second World War. To find a precedent for a pandemic on such a global scale, you have to look back to the Spanish Flu, which ravaged the world over 100 years ago. We are currently living through one of the most challenging business landscapes in living memory, which is creating uncertainty and forcing business owners to abandon long-established practices.
However, viewed in a more ‘glass half full’ context, the Covid-19 crisis has also forced businesses in the UK to think more innovatively. The hospitality industry, for instance, which is reliant on customers physically attending brick and mortar locations, is only just starting to open up again after a 3 month lockdown that brought it to a standstill. Despite this, business owners in the sector have come up with bright new ways of drumming up revenue remotely. Takeaway-only services at restaurants, coffee shops and pubs have become commonplace, while enterprising restaurant chains such as Patty & Bun and Pizza Pilgrims have innovated and popularised a new product; the DIY home kit. So where else have we seen innovation during Covid-19, and how might the pandemic impact R&D in future?
In March, a couple of weeks before the lockdown was announced, Chancellor Rishi Sunak pledged £22bn per year to be spent on R&D. This is the largest year on year increase in R&D government support in history, and makes the UK’s R&D budget bigger than in the US, China, France or Japan. This puts the UK in a great position to turn all of the negatives the pandemic brings with it into an opportunity. With the amount of government money available, in the form of R&D expenditure credits and tax relief, it’s never been easier to greenlight public funds that will help companies come up with their latest innovations. In these times we live in, with new problems to adapt to, this budget increase couldn’t have been better timed. The UK could emerge as a real global leader in innovations that help people go about their daily routine while staying safe from the risk of infection.
The problems faced by the hospitality industry are far from unique. In any sector you can think of, some businesses have struggled to adapt to the new reality, while some have taken the opportunity to thrive and innovate. One industry that has struggled immensely in 2020 is the aerospace industry. With many countries in lockdown, air travel is discouraged and in some cases even banned entirely. The industry has in many cases prevented the pandemic from being fatal by offering customers the chance to rearrange booked flights for a later date. However, if the industry is to survive long-term, it has to get back up and running. The big question from an R&D point of view is how to make an aeroplane, which recycles the air passengers breathe, safe during a pandemic.
A company which has stepped up to the plate in this regard is Akka Technologies. The company recently won a grant from Innovate UK to continue their research into pandemic-proofing aeroplanes. It is thought that their innovations will reduce the transmission of Covid-19 while onboard an aircraft. It is precisely this kind of innovative thinking that will dominate the R&D space for the remainder of the pandemic.
Another industry that has had to adapt to the new normal is MedTech – or medical technology. The rapid rise of Covid-19 – which, let’s not forget, didn’t even exist until last year – has presented medicine with a raft of issues. Covid-19 testing kits and ventilators have now become essential on a massive scale globally in order to track the virus, and keep infected people alive respectively. Well thought out innovations have been required to develop and distribute these new pieces of kit.
Safety Tech is another sector that has performed well during lockdown. The Californian company FogHorn have created a range of systems that allow people to return to work safely, even while the pandemic is still ongoing. The automated system monitors employees health using cough detection technology, and checks that they are wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing guidelines. If there is a breach, the system flags it to the employee’s line manager, indicating that the employee should either be sent home, or reminded of their obligation to wear a mask and socially distance.
On our side of the pond, a government report released in May marked out the UK as a world leader in online safety innovation. Online security specialists work in a sector that is ever changing, and requires constant innovation to stay ahead. This is especially prescient during lockdown, where many of us have increased the amount of time we spend online. These are just a few examples, but there are countless others. As a species, we are adapting to new problems, which provides the R&D industry with a unique opportunity to devise new solutions.
Making predictions about the world after Covid-19 is tricky. Historically, pandemics on this scale have tended to be revolutionary, tearing up convention, upending the established order and creating a new world. In a way, the pandemic has already done this. It has changed our everyday routines, problems, and habits, to the point where the old habits of a pre-Covid world feel alien. The next few years are likely to be a boom period for R&D as humanity searches for solutions to brand new problems. What technological or scientific breakthroughs will arise in the future to adapt and advance from where we are today? It’s hard to say, but we can’t wait to be a part of it. Let us know what you think the next big innovation will be in the comments below.
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