Awakenings: Innovation must happen now

In 1990, Penny Marshall dramatised one of Oliver Sacks’ books called Awakenings with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in the leading roles. For anyone too young to have seen this, or too old to remember it, here is a brief synopsis (stay with me, this is going somewhere).

Awakenings Innovation must happen now

Williams plays a doctor at a psychiatric institution where De Niro is a patient who has been in a catatonic state for most of his life. Williams’ character discovers a drug that when administered, brings people out of the catatonia – a kind of miraculous awakening.

To me, this virus episode has created a similar moment of awakening in the business world. After years of doing things in one way – tangled up in corporate red tape, imprisoned by the digital doubters and network security Nazis – with a sudden ferocity the game is afoot.

In all the reasons to despair about our economy, the fate of the most vulnerable and the many crises Covid-19 has wrought, this is the crack of light in the doorway. There is a new willingness to embrace digital channels, to consider fundamental product and service innovation, and an acceptance that we will need to serve a changed consumer now and on the other end of this (a particular shout out here to Pick n Pay [not our client] that has really found its mojo in the past few weeks).

Critical mass needed for scale

Of course, I’m not suggesting there is a like-for-like trade here. In a country where many people exist hand-to-mouth with no bank accounts, let alone eWallets or addresses Uber Eats can arrive at, simple ecommerce solutions fix a tiny part of the problem. But even there for some businesses, this is the critical mass they needed to scale. True, they are mostly small start-ups, but as we know from the last 20 years, these can end up punching way above their weight.

But even in the more traditional sectors, companies for whom hard-hitting TV ads were considered radical are having to consider alternatives. The basic logic of get noticed, make a great offer, receive the customer in your store, sign them up and then barrage them with SMS messages and more ads until they come back is now definitively broken.

Awakenings has a sad ending, though. The effects of the drug don’t last and by the end of the film (spoiler), the patients are back in their statuesque prisons. And this could be the way this bizarre passage of human history ends too. In a few months, we may be once again plodding through shopping malls, stuffing our faces at restaurants and dulling our minds in bars across the country. There is no version of our economic future in which this isn’t a necessity.

Digital obstacles down

But regardless, and for a long time, our lives will have changed in at least a few specific ways:

1. Digital obstacles are down: for the middle class, the levels of online activity have grown exponentially in just a few weeks. People who have never had a video meeting are now having 5 or 10 a day. Cloud applications are commonplace. And the people making these things are innovating like crazy off the back of unparalleled usage data from mainstream users.

Clearly, this isn’t by choice and the frustrations with home work are legion. But the genie that can’t go back in the bottle is capability. Everyone can do this stuff now and this has to represent a disruptive opportunity. (Although different, the usage of mobile for communication, entertainment and commerce reaches far deeper into the consumer base than privilege does.)

2. Home is safe; the world Isn’t: this is true regardless of your economic class. Reduced human contact means more must happen locally. Even if this confines people to neighbourhoods rather than houses, this is a major shift in cities that are known for endless mass transit.

3. Weak currency, more isolation: the weakness of the rand may or may not be permanent. The doomsayers latch onto times like this to prove that our country has plunged into ruin. But we have rebounded before. Either way, there is no doubt that imports and outbound travel must decline, and (after a time) our attractiveness as an export market offering well priced inbound tourism rises. You can choose to read disaster in this – or a chance to keep more of our wealth here, support each other, and boost local manufacturing and innovation.

4. Virtual borders collapse: it’s obvious that we are all connected to the same internet. And virtual goods – whatever these may be – can be consumed and sold globally. We have an opportunity (once again at a very attractive price) to offer ours to the world, and to grab what the world has to offer behind each click. Creative production has indeed been democratised – the opportunities are huge.

Regardless of whether you buy my muted optimism, one thing to take away is that there is an unusual, notable willingness on the part of change sceptics to listen right now. In some cases, it’s because they are afraid and looking for any way out; in some, it’s because they have correctly assessed the change in consumer needs and behaviour. While there isn’t a lot of money to make investments, it is up to all of us in the creative sector to put our thinking caps on and embrace that most tired of concepts: innovation.

Do it now, before rigidity rebounds.

Published on The Media Online