As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Most of us spending close quarters with family and flatmates may likely agree. However, flipping the assertion that normality can be stifling, can disruption breed content? At the commence of this lockdown, a little known fact about Newton began doing the rounds in the media and online; Newton, these sources asserted, did his best work from home and, in fact, it was during his solitary quarantine in Cambridgeshire shielding from the panic du jour – the deadly bubonic plague – that he embarked on his annus mirabilis: “year of wonders”. During these wondrous years, it is said that Newton advanced several scientific concepts including, but not limited to, the invention of calculus the laws of motion and the not insignificant, theory of gravity. As he aged, Newton alleged that the periods spent in forced isolation actually made way for the most intellectual satisfying moments. As the story did the rounds, inconsistencies and half-truths emerged, but a singular question prevails: what can be gained by bringing people outside of their ‘comfort zones’? How do we drive innovation and create environments which enable people to do “good work”? By extension of the old adage about familiarity and taking to considerations. Newtons successes, should we look at this period of deep discomfort as an opportunity to instigate profound change and realise innovation?
Innovation has long been a practice of colouring outside of the lines. Lacking contours and a defined end point, innovators have long encouraged aspiring innovators to step beyond their comfort zones and explore a world, often, beyond imagination – however uncomfortable that may be. Looking at the world today, we are potentially the most uncomfortable we have ever been. Last week, Trudie Style musing about lockdown life in an interview with the guardian mused that “we have to get used to feeling uncomfortable’, and while this is sage advice from a sanity perspective, isn’t that half of the problem? One of the things that has been suggested since the emergence of the crisis is that this provides an unrevoked opportunity for us to rethink life and society as well know it. From a workplace perspective, we have unlocked an entire new generation of remote workers and from a sustainability stance, the decrease in global travel has had profound impact on climate change. If we become too uncomfortable in our discomfort, won’t we simply return to business as usual and stifle the endless potential for innovation that this period can bring.
Being uncomfortable, stepping outside of comfort zones, and building new routines and patterns can be potentially very fruitful for the body politic. Indeed, history has demonstrated the innovation and revolutionary progress that can emerge from great chaos; The black death destroyed the traditional feudal system and triggered the emergence of a more egalitarian employment system; SARS and the financial crisis catalysed the services market, first through the growth of Ali Baba and latterly with the swift growth of the shared-services industry embodied by companies such as Air BnB, Lyft, Convene…etc. How exactly the COVID-19 crisis will change the world remains to be seen but piecemeal innovations continue at pace; take for example the meteoric growth of robotics – as carers, friends and delivery services. – and Video conferencing – as a means of keeping in touch both socially and professionally.
These are trying, deeply uncomfortable, times indeed; but they need not be destructive. Harnessing our discomfort, we can incisively begin to think about the world we live in – the way we work, the technology that we use and the spaces we occupy – and ways in which they work, and where they don’t. Doing so may prove incredibly fruitful further down the line, once the clouds have cleared.