The silver linings of 2020

By Jai Thampi, SVP Strategy & Innovation, Schneider Electric

2020 was a challenging year – trying for governments, disruptive for businesses and, most of all, perplexing for people. And though the year is pretty much done and dusted, we’re not out of the woods yet.

However, we shouldn’t despair. There were many silver linings this year that should make us confident of a better future. COVID-19 forced us to adapt, transform, and reinvent ourselves. I firmly believe that adversity inevitably spurs growth. It instils humanity with a stronger sense of what’s important. So from that perspective, despite everything else it threw at us, 2020 was an inspiring year.

We’ve already planted the seeds of new thinking, new approaches and ways of doing things. In the coming years we’ll see these innovations finally bloom. 2020 will be remembered as the year when the global pandemic started, but it will also be seen as the turning point – for open innovation, industry collaboration and technology evolution.

Here’s what has been different this year, and what inspired me the most:

1. Big business doubled down on digital innovation

Customarily, it is start-ups that are often venerated as the incubators of creativity and innovation while large corporations tend to be stereotyped as monolithic and bogged down by bureaucracy, hierarchy and inefficient processes. Yet, as COVID upended everything we thought we knew, it was big business that took the lead at the forefront of technological innovation.

Once the initial disruption began, it didn’t take established multinationals long to match agile newcomers in terms of speed, inventive passion and the “all for one, one for all” team spirit. One of the most inspiring examples was supply chain innovation. Hit with disruption at the start of the pandemic, businesses rose to the challenge, rapidly shifting and digitalizing their supply chains to ensure critical products and services made it to customers on time. The acceleration of eCommerce played a big part here. A report published in June noted that COVID-19 “accelerated eCommerce growth 4 to 6 years”.

Digitization programs that would have taken years to complete were achieved in months or even weeks. In fact, demand for business accelerators like advanced analytics, IoT and AI increased by 40-46% due to the pandemic. I don’t think we’ve ever seen big business move so fast – and I believe this furious pace will continue into 2021.

2. Collaboration trumped division, creating momentum for open innovation

Collaboration saved lives in 2020. Every vaccine that has been trialed and distributed has been the product of collaboration by multiple stakeholders, private and public enterprises. Yet beyond vaccines and ventilators, collaboration as a business model has produced huge benefits for companies and customers.

While perhaps overlooked in normal times, open innovation is the future. The creation and distribution of open source tools, built and distributed on shared, industry-wide platforms will greatly expand the scope for value creation. Collaboration and synergies will enable a much-needed step change across many industries and markets.

If we look at our own homes – we now have wireless speakers, intelligent assistants, climate control devices and smart security devices aplenty. But is this smart home technology revolutionizing the way we live? Not as much as it could. Instead of glorified remote controls and smart speakers listening into our conversations, technology should improve our home’s environmental footprint, reduce our energy bills, while making our abodes more personalized and comfortable at the same time. This interplay between smart home tech and energy management will be the single most important win for consumers, businesses, and the planet, and this is only possible through open innovation and partnerships.

But in order to do that companies need to identify — and respond to — their partners’ true motivations. 2020 taught us that urgency and powerful challenges – from COVID-19 to climate change –make us more likely to work together. Companies however need to choose their partners carefully and ensure they’re all working towards the same goal.

3. Business stayed close to customers, despite social distancing

Know thy customer. That’s long been the foundation of business success. As a mentor to start-ups, I often see customer intelligence emerge as a major source of uncertainty and contention that big business can certainly help newcomers unlock and understand.

This year, as borders remained closed and supply chains disrupted, large corporations and start-ups alike worked hard to redefine their offering, reconfigure production and adjust innovation cycles to stay close to their customers and their needs. In many ways, businesses have never been closer to customers and their expectations – and that’s largely due to the convenience and insight provided by digital channels.

At Schneider Electric, we created and launched a number of tailored local and regional solutions in response to what our customers and key consumer and customer pain points. The 2021 CES award-winning Acti9 Active – an open device that monitors the health of your home and alerts you before any potential safety issues occur – is just one such example.

Disruption isn’t easy. When times are good, we often wish for a shakeup to reset the board and push us towards a world that’s fairer, more exciting and prosperous. Yet change never comes how we expect it would. Change is like fire – it destroys what came before, but it also provides fertile soil on which to start again. We should pause to remember what’s been lost, but also acknowledge that change is constant, inevitable and often necessary. In one of my recent blog posts I wrote about 3 positive trends for the future, all of which are the shoots of optimism I say are sprouting on that fertile soil.

Change is in the air. We’ve made it through the hard part – the fire – now is the time to start rebuilding. 2020 has given me hope that we’ll build back better and stronger. After all, every cloud has a silver lining.

 

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