The proverbial wisdom says that “you can have all the riches and success in the world, but if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.” Right now, everything hinges on our health. Our work, our wealth, our future.

As the sickest nation in the world with COVID-19, the United States is heading towards having “nothing.” The U.S. is leading the world in deaths by the coronavirus, and people are left with “nothing” as they lose their jobs. It is heartbreaking and scary. Simultaneously, politically, the U.S. is actively separating from international collaboration efforts and further isolating itself, and, consequently, losing its status as the world’s leading democracy. Are isolationism and protectionism also going to cost the U.S. to lose its top-ranking ingenuity? 

The warning signs were already in the air when the latest Global Innovation Index 2019 (1). was published: “Waning public support for R&D in high-income economies is concerning given its central role in funding basic R&D and other blue-sky research, which are key to future innovations— including for health innovation.”

At its best, science shows its transformative power when novel ideas and practical solutions are achieved under pressure, constraints, and with minimal resources. The pressure to quickly find solutions to the deadly coronavirus pandemic has pushed scientists and engineers to rethink everything. Interesting “frugal innovations” have emerged as scientists reuse and repurpose resources and deploy prototypes rapidly (2). Think of a team in a global computing consortium (3). led by Amanda Randles, a biomedical engineer at Duke University, who developed airflow simulations for a new device to split a ventilator between two or more patients in record time. This created much-needed extra capacity during the COVID-19 surge. 

Scientists gather — now mostly online — to pool their collective intelligence, and engage AI to innovate how to tackle this nasty virus. For example, a team led by assistant professor of biomedical engineering Jessilyn Dunn and Ryan Shaw, an associate professor of nursing and director of the Health Innovation Lab at Duke University, designed an app called CovIdentify to explore how data collected by smartphones and smartwatches could help determine whether device users have COVID-19. The app is expected to help indicate early symptoms of COVID-19 by collecting biometric information, like sleep schedules, oxygen levels, activity levels, and heart rate.

Because of human ingenuity, we are surrounded by miraculous things that have elevated our living standards. We’ve come a long way from the caveman times. The human mind is a powerful organ – but it loses its expansive power to innovate in isolation. Innovation is not an individual endeavor; it is a result of dynamic collaboration. 

Three human characteristics drive the innovation activity even under the direst circumstances. 

1. Curiosity

Foundational to science and all human progress is curiosity. Without mind-opening questions like Why? Why not? What if? the human race would have gone extinct a long ago. (Thankfully, some of the adult population retains a three-year-old’s curiosity throughout their lives!) Curiosity is often thought of as an individual personality characteristic, but it can also be a marker of a team or an organizational or national culture. Embracing curiosity, leads to the pursuing of knowledge and valuing of science. 

2. Courage

To actualize innovation, however, curiosity is not enough. While curiosity opens the mind, the energy needed to act on the new knowledge requires courage. Think of how in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins asks Gandalf something like: “You ask me to go on this enormously dangerous sounding journey, but can you promise me that I will return?” Gandalf admits that there are no guarantees for Bilbao’s safe return. Instead, he says, “But if you will come back, you will come back changed.” Creating is for the brave. 

3. Collaboration

While you can create alone, you cannot innovate alone. Innovation is always a result of Collaboration. The collective intelligence of humans is exponentially more powerful than the work of any one genius. While many organizations claim “collaboration” as a core value for them, it is rare to practice it effectively. It’s hard to stay collaborative in fiercely competitive environments. Collaboration fails when the pressures of scarcity rule. When we believe that there isn’t enough time or money to do things collaboratively – we shrink. A scarcity mindset only leads to short term strategies for the survival of the fittest rather than cooperation and sustainable solutions in the long term. If leaders were more skilled at collaboration, we’d see more resource sharing, innovation, better leadership, more inspiration, and the human capacity for innovation would expand, especially under adversity.

Only with curiosity, courage, and collaboration can we imagine new possibilities and create novel solutions. Collaboration creates Hope. Like the autonomous spacecraft mission led by a 33-year scientist Sarah Al-Amiri (4). called “Al-Amal” or “Hope” which was recently launched to Mars due to UAE and Japan’s collaborative effort. As we ramp up our collaboration for interplanetary research, let’s hope our leaders continue to focus on international cooperation here on Earth. Our health – and lives – depend on it. 

  1. https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_gii_2019-intro3.pdf
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0889-1.pdf
  3. COVID-19 High-Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/science/mars-united-arab-emirates.html?smtyp=cur&smid=fb-nytimes&fbclid=IwAR0CKSYYld0KYdjNDQ5QoGSIUnCFf8g6lBqSbY5Rx63eLqudOGZpeDPqvpA