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The great economic crisis of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed brought with them a level of destruction that had never been seen before. As a result of the stock market crash in October 1929 and a crisis in the banking system, a worldwide economic crisis ensued. Many companies had to close, went bankrupt or had to be sold at a loss to new investors.

The parallels to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses seem obvious in retrospect, and one might be inclined to see COVID-19 as a death blow to many affected businesses. From my perspective, it is. Yet there are very successful companies in all countries and in all markets – despite the stock market crash of 1929 or COVID-19. And there are companies that somehow managed to stay afloat more or less poorly for the last few years and are now facing or have already experienced their demise.

Destroyed life dreams

Many newspapers report on the increasing vacancies of commercial properties in German city centers and on the demise of retail and other industries. The situation is dramatic. We read about the end of retail, the middle class and of our overall prosperity. We read about everything that can be destroyed and could disappear forever. We learn of bankruptcies, job losses, destroyed life plans and dreams, and the financial damage and emotional strain that go with them. It is an image that glorifies habits from the past and fails to see the opportunities of the future.

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    Innovation means renewal. Innovations are creative solutions to currently existing problems and their negative effects. They contribute to an improvement of a condition – and thus also create the potential for new problems to be solved by means of innovation.

    Implementing changes, renewals and innovations in an existing structure can be a very difficult, laborious and lengthy undertaking. Every change manager can tell you about this experience. Innovations may take place at best in sub-areas, should not change the core of the company and thus limit change and ensure continuity. This is also called conservatism. Changes take place in small steps and lag in their implementation behind the technical, social, climatic, biological and individual potentials that lie within them.

    A case in point

    We can already see this to a great extent in the German automotive industry, which for far too long refused to recognize that the car of tomorrow is no longer a powerful internal combustion engine with a connected passenger compartment, but a central high-performance computer with a compelling passenger experience powered by electric motors. The German automotive industry gives us an example of how an orientation to the past can get in the way of the future, while visionaries like Tesla, Google and Apple have developed completely new approaches and translated them into successful business models.

    Let’s return to the coronavirus crisis. Looking at the past and the potential and actual losses we may experience as a result combined with their impact on our economy and personal and social lives prevents us from looking to the future. Many technical and social innovations of the last decades were not able to unleash their potential because habitual thinking and the adherence to supposedly proven things stood in the way.

    Renewal can take place much more quickly and effectively if it has the space to develop. Many cities that we enjoyed visiting (before the coronavirus) and whose beauty we admire stand on the foundations of times long past. Often the terrible destruction caused by war and fire has allowed the space for new urban development, new streets, houses and cultural institutions. The beauty we admire in these cities today was often only possible because of the destruction of the old before it.

    Fantastic innovations

    And so every crisis has an end and ushers in a period of renewal, improvement and prosperity. We can trust that this will also be the case after the coronavirus if we want it to be and if we, as a society and as individuals, allow for possible change.

    What would a world look like in which all the fantastic innovations reported by Innovation Origins were implemented and effective? How might our planet’s climate recover if all the technological possibilities were consistently implemented? What would our cities look like if there were not simply shopping streets with stores, but downtowns offering shopping experiences?

    How would we live if we concentrated on things that would make our lives – individually – worth living and meaningful?

    About this coloumn:

    In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.

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