Innovating for Safety in a Post-Pandemic World

With vaccines in distribution, there is cautious optimism that the end of the pandemic may be in view.  But pandemic-driven changes to consumer attitudes and behaviors may well endure into the future.  Over the past year, stop-gap safety measures based on existing tools and technologies led to numerous product/service solutions that were met with rapid consumer adoption.  Yet, longer term, innovations must leverage emerging technologies in order to fuel a new generation of products best suited for a post-pandemic future.

Redefining Safety

The term post-pandemic not only refers to life after Covid-19, but rather life in a world where other pandemics can and likely will arrive.  And yet, even before the arrival of the “next virus”, no one is exactly clear on the meaning of a return to normal.  What seems certain, however, is that the paradigm of the post-pandemic world will be characterized by a redefined view of safety.  Accordingly, five inter-related safety trends are likely to continue beyond Covid-19:

Distance. Creating distance between individuals – at the point of consumption, at work or when traveling, at the point of purchase. Even as shelter in place mandates are lifted, some forms of social distancing will continue to permeate everyday life for some time to come.

Contact. Minimizing (or eliminating) human contact through the supply chain – from point of origin to point of consumption. In combination with social distancing, minimum or no contact systems that remove as many human touch points as possible will be desired by customers.

Social Norms. Changing social norms and expectations that place priority on biosafety over other concerns. For example, wearing a mask into a retail establishment or a bank previously would have been viewed as socially unacceptable or ill advised.  The handshake has gone extinct, and its return is in question.

Indicators. Informing through direct or proxy indicators on the safety levels of a product or an environment. Increasingly, customers will demand evidence of safety as a prerequisite for purchase.

Mobility. Enabling safe freedom of movement – beyond the protected environment of the home or other secure locations. Technologies and products that safely liberate people from lockdowns and quarantines will dictate new specifications for “on-the-go” products and enablers.

Most products and services may not need to respond to all these trends at the same time.  But careful consideration of each trend may uncover innovation opportunities for existing products or new openings in previously unexplored markets.

First Movers

At early stages of the pandemic, many companies large and small moved quickly to new product formats and service offerings to respond to safety concerns of a panicked market.  For example – contact – Domino’s Pizza swiftly began promoting contactless delivery and others followed suit.  Or – social norms – apparel manufacturers and retailers embraced facemasks and installed a wide range of fashionable variants into their product offerings.  Companies demonstrated their will and creativity by responding to new market demand through repurposed manufacturing assets or even reconsidered abandoned business models like milk home delivery – distance.

Post-Pandemic Innovation

Most makeshift safety measures that emerged in early stages of the pandemic do not likely represent long-term solutions.  For example, manual disinfecting of surfaces in public settings became a common practice to prevent viral spread and to allay consumer fears.  This suboptimal procedural bandage provides a visual cue for safety, but it is labor intensive, inefficient, and with questionable efficacy.  Technologies that introduce new surface chemistry or self-cleaning approaches will offer new directions for innovation with widespread impact.

Innovating for safety in a post-pandemic world will require three important elements:

Redefining Safety as a Parameter of Value.  Post-pandemic success will require a disciplined examination and understanding of safety expectations.  Redefining the parameter of safety in a post pandemic world should be built along the five safety trends – distance, contact, social norms, indicators, and mobility.

Each trend must be considered at each life stage of the product, not only at the point of use.  For example, safety requirements may drive new innovations in how raw materials are sourced or how/where the product is manufactured, stored, and shipped.  Safety concerns will continue to influence where and how products are purchased and how and where they are consumed.  And safety-driven changes at earlier life stages could have implications for post-consumption parameters of value.

Reframing the Problems that Must Be Solved.  A deliberate examination of each pandemic-driven safety trend at each product life stage will provide innovators the basis for understanding deeply rooted problems that need to be solved.  Sometimes uncovering and solving contradictions across life stages will be needed.  For example, consumers want single-use disposable packaging to ensure biosafety, but also want reusable packaging to minimize waste.  Solving these contradictions is the mainstay of strong innovation teams and clear problem statement reframing sets the groundwork for technology search and solution development.

Deploying Next Generation Technologies.  Reliance on existing tools and technologies will not be sufficient to solve new problems of the future.  For example, a year ago children were sent from their classrooms to their bedrooms – distance – and then asked to continue their studies using essentially the same tools that were available before the pandemic.  In a post-pandemic world, leaders in distance learning or telehealth must deploy innovations that leverage new technologies not simply repurposed existing tools and approaches.

The Path Forward

The post-pandemic world will continue to threaten legacy business models and it will also present new opportunities for those with the foresight and skills to exploit them.  Success in a post-pandemic world will require more than temporary responses or brainstorming about the future.  For Innovation leaders, clear and sober thinking about the time to come is essential.  And it should begin with a systematic and disciplined reframing of the parameter of safety for a post-pandemic world.