From robots to 3D printing, how coronavirus can inspire waves of innovation

As strange as it may sound, we need to plan now for a dynamic post-pandemic world.

The unique circumstances of the crisis have unleashed a wave of innovation and prompted unprecedented levels of regulatory relief as we deal with both a health and an economic crisis.

At the same time, American workers — from employees in large companies to gig hustlers — are adapting and innovating in new ways and at new speeds. Our “new normal” in the future should incorporate lessons learned from this period.

Congress could help by creating an independent commission to study how laws and regulations inhibited or facilitated innovation and adaptation during the crisis. Dynamism means much more than “light touch” regulatory agencies. It is also about encouraging a culture of creative experimentation at all levels of the economy.

The innovation we are seeing during the crisis, from accelerated drug approvals to small-scale personal protective equipment production, should help guide our regulatory reform efforts in the future.

The national commission should include state representatives among its members, or encourage parallel state commissions, because many limits to dynamism exist at the state level. Previous ideas for regulatory commissions, both in the United States and abroad, could serve as a model for Congress.

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4 ways to drive innovation

Initially, the commission could concentrate on four factors that have been revolutionized by innovation during the pandemic:.

►Speed. COVID-19 has forced many companies to discard protocols to adapt to our new reality. The most obvious example is in pharmaceutical development. It hasn’t been perfect, but drug companies and regulators are learning to share information more effectively and undo requirements that slow progress.

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The commission could look at how new information and supercomputing systems — together with simpler, more standardized clinical trials — could lower costs and speed up drug development.

More generally, during the pandemic, companies have been reinventing processes and systems practically overnight, from supply chain management in food delivery to sporting goods purchases and 3D printing. A commission should study the manner in which the regulatory environment interacted with such innovation, whether positively or negatively.

►Distance. The process for removing barriers to physical distance will accelerate after the crisis. One obvious example is telemedicine. There is no need to go to the doctor’s office unless medically necessary; yet state licensing and referral laws complicate telehealth and should be reworked.

Distance learning has now become the norm by the sheer force of school closures, and parents and employers understandably want to see kids back in school as soon as possible. But new opportunities for remote learning models should emerge from this experience, and state requirements should adapt to them.

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Other distance-reducing technologies range from increasing the use of drones to deliver products to expanded broadband access to rural areas, all of which have implications for regulatory frameworks.

►Health. New ways of detecting and dealing with health threats are set to proliferate because of the coronavirus. Innovation on this front is already exploding. From reusable protective masks, to health apps that detect symptoms and deliver medical advice, to detection kits that produce immediate results for multiple viruses, the pandemic has prompted a wave of innovation that will improve our quality of life.

We may even have robots in our offices and homes one day that can kill viruses and bacteria without using chemicals, and technology that can “smell” whether viruses are in a room in the first place.

►Business. We should pay special attention to reforms that promote greater adaptability and flexibility, especially among smaller businesses and sole proprietors. The pandemic has prompted a lot of adaptive repurposing in a number of sectors, from local distillers producing hand sanitizer to electronics firms producing protective masks.

Encourage flexibility in business

Our rules should encourage maximum adaptability and flexibility, such as with 3D printing that has allowed small and large companies to fill in gaps in the supply chain. Fintech, the integration of technology into financial services, has grown considerably during the pandemic and made commercial activity easier for small businesses and gig workers.

Rules that inhibit adaptability, such as limits on what health care workers and hospitals can do to meet needs, should be up for review.

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We need dynamism to get us through the crisis, and we will need it as we rebuild our economy afterward. Thinking now about how that should look is incredibly important.

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @streeterryan.

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