Friday, March 27, 2020

Latent Knowledge and Innovation in Times of Crisis

Innovations emerge from a wide range of circumstances. Crises are a very potent trigger for innovation.  Crises give us the motivation and (potentially) something very specific to focus on.  Here is a recent example about shortages of ventilators and the innovation it triggered

On the surface, it's a clear case of general crisis leading to very specific critical challenges that trigger innovative responses by specialists who are able to come together quickly with a solution.

Without knowing the background, it's hard to tell how this exactly happened but I was wondering if they didn't have a curated collection of ventilator designs that they had worked on over the years that, for one reason or another, had not been commercialized.  Did they really create this new ventilator out of thin air in a short amount of time?  Not likely.  They were able to do it because of their accumulated knowledge base and prior experience. They probably recycled a lot of existing knowledge and put together a solution that met the very specific need that was emerging. 

The story (for news purposes and probably for the company's marketing purposes) will be that this was a great innovation that saved lives.  The less glamorous reality may be that this design (or something very close to it) existed but didn't have a market until today.  It was latent knowledge, knowledge that we have but have not yet harnessed.  Perhaps innovation is precisely that, the harnessing of latent knowledge to respond to specific challenges.