by Catherine Beaudry, founding member of the GYA and Associate Professor at the Mathematics and Industrial Engineering Department of École Polytechnique de Montréal, Canada.
We live in unprecedented times. Around the world, some are coming out of confinement, some are waiting to be vaccinated, most of the global economy has been seriously disrupted and when the pandemic ends remains uncertain. We live day-by-day, hooked on statistics and hoping for a slowdown in the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. Never in living memory have we experienced a crisis of such magnitude.
Since the pandemic began, manufacturers in sectors other than medical equipment have competed in ingenuity to come up with solutions to help the health sector respond to this health crisis. They realise, however, that the supply of materials for the construction of masks, respirators and other healthcare supplies is anything but straightforward. Some health care facilities asked for the certification of materials and finished products before deploying them, while others were willing to use everything that could be produced on the spot. Knowledge and relationships have been used to connect the right people with the right organisations. The resourcefulness of the manufacturing and hospital sectors has been unparalleled.
The best example of collaboration was the worldwide race for a COVID-19 vaccine and antiviral therapies launched in fast-track mode. Collaboration between laboratories and researchers intensified, governments opened their public purses, publishers of scientific journals opened access to the articles they had recently been selling at high prices, and regulators worked closely with firms and universities to rethink and accelerate the regulatory process.
Altogether, this collaboration has paid off handsomely, as at least four types of vaccines have been approved and are being administered in a vast worldwide vaccination effort aimed at getting the pandemic under control.
However, the reluctance of some countries to allow the shipment of essential ingredients of pharmaceuticals, and an apparent rush towards using medications designed for other illnesses without evidence of their anti-COVID-19 efficacy has deprived people who depend on both.
Further, high prices have been paid by some countries to secure access to the vaccine. Dealing with these two realities, international scientific and political collaboration – as well as competition – will be the lot of research in pharmacology and medicine in the years to come.
Companies, universities, innovation intermediaries, governments and other organisations will have to contend with national and international rules of the game that constantly change. Before long, the governance structures of these great coalitions, sharing of the developed intellectual property, and regulation of the solutions found will have to be addressed. These three dimensions make up what I call the Bermuda Triangle of innovation ecosystems. If everyone is not rowing together in the same direction to navigate these troubled waters, these vast science and innovation programs will founder.
With climate upheaval at our door, we must not make mistakes this time. The reconstruction of our economic system cannot be haphazard, and must include combating climate change as a priority.
Everyone will have to contribute and work together. Indeed, we need a global equivalent of the type of mobilisation that put the first man on the moon – moonshot research – to develop a sustainable international economic system.
This mobilisation requires deep thinking on models of collaboration, on the governance of such collections of organisations working in symbiosis towards a common goal. Mechanisms have to be put in place so that both participants and ecosystems (the metaphorical innovation ecosystems and the real biological ones) benefit.
With the rapid development, regulatory approval and production of the vaccines against COVID-19, we have shown that such wide-scale collaboration is possible. These are the examples that should be studied and scaled up. Their deployment will require agile methods and innovative processes both at the organisational level and at the level of the innovation ecosystem if we are to avoid some of the failures that we have witnessed during this pandemic.
GYA members and alumni alike should consider initiating an in-depth reflection on the various ways the pandemic has impacted our societies and our economies. The ultimate goal here should be to rethink the innovative societies of tomorrow, and incorporate our current experiences. Together, we will be able to navigate today’s troubled waters.
But with adequate foresight, planning and effort, we might just be able to avoid such troubled waters in future.