Pandemic Pivots


Project teams throughout history have answered the most difficult problems with strategic innovations. The global pandemic is no exception.

With businesses rocked to their core, project leaders and their teams managed to iterate quickly and adapt to the unknown. Here are five projects helping people navigate a new reality:

  1. Drones that Disinfect
    As businesses reopen following COVID-19 lockdowns, the need to disinfect public spaces is growing. Combining artificial intelligence with advanced mathematics, U.S. tech company Digital Aerolus developed the first indoor drone with C-band ultraviolet (UVC) lights—created specifically to combat spread of the coronavirus with what it says is a 99 percent disinfection rate.

    The Aertos 120-UVC flies at 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) above a surface. Within five minutes, the intensity of its 36 LED UVC lights is powerful enough to disinfect a surface spanning 2 meters (6.5 feet) by 2 meters.

    Because the Aertos drones don’t rely on GPS or external sensors, they can operate in small and confined spaces and can sterilize building interiors. Having drones do such work rather than humans reduces those workers’ exposure to coronavirus.

  2. A No-Frills Ventilator
    The horrifying scenes of hospitals in Italy running out of ventilators made it clear that supply couldn’t keep up with demand. So Virgin Orbit pivoted from producing space rockets to developing a so-called bridge ventilator for COVID-19 patients with moderate symptoms. The device frees up more sophisticated (and expensive) ventilators for severe cases requiring intensive care.

    To make the jump from theory to reality, the company teamed up with the Bridge Ventilator Consortium, a joint force of doctors and medical device experts from the University of California Irvine and the University of Texas at Austin. Prioritizing speed and scalability, the team designed, tested and iterated its way to the first ventilator prototype.

    “I have never seen our team working harder. Never seen ideas moving quicker from design to prototype,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement at the time.

    And less than a month after it announced the project, the company secured an emergency authorization from the U.S. government to begin delivering units to first responders and healthcare facilities.

    Now Virgin Orbit is working with partners in South Africa to start local manufacturing of the bridge ventilators as well as its oxygen helmets, sealed masks that deliver oxygen-rich air to patients. The timing could prove just as critical, with COVID-19 cases starting to spike across the continent.

  3. A Restaurant Designed for Social Distancing
    Designated spots for customer to stand and hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance: A pilot project at a McDonald’s in Arnhem, the Netherlands gave customers a preview of what fast food dining might look like at least for now.

    Along with slashing seating capacity to 66 percent, the restaurant amended multiple processes—implementing wellness checks, providing thermometers, installing protective shields for frontline staff and placing floor decals that keep customers 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) apart, according to Reuters. McDonald’s might also introduce table service, with menu items wheeled out to patrons on trolleys.

    McDonald’s expects its updated design will work at 180 of its 252 franchises in the country. And as more stores reopen, the restaurant chain plans to slowly implement some of these changes across its stores globally.

  4. Next-Gen Online Shopping
    Lockdowns spurred by COVID-19 served as a massive wake-up call to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, many of which were already struggling before the global pandemic hit.

    Alibaba Group’s Taobao Live answered the disruption with innovation. The livestreaming video platform threw businesses in China a lifeline by accelerating digital makeovers for retailers and supercharging the online experience for the more than 800 million monthly active users on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites. In February—with almost all Chinese businesses shuttered—Taobao Live waived service fees for brick-and-mortar merchants and saw the number of them using the platform for the first time jump by 719 percent compared to the previous month.

    The company also reports livestream sessions shot up by 110 percent versus the same period in 2019. Driving that growth was an eclectic influx of businesses using the service in new ways. Rural farmers shut out of markets, for example, took to the site to promote their harvests—including a session from Hailuo Farm that sold out of 30,000 kilograms (66,139 pounds) of fruit in under 2 minutes. Shanghai-based cosmetics brand Forest Cabin trained 1,600 of its shop attendants as livestream hosts after it temporarily closed about half of its 337 stores. And tech brand Xiaomi broadcast the launch of its new flagship smartphone, Mi 10, from its Beijing headquarters.

    Even as China’s retail economy cautiously reopens, the platform remains a way for retailers in China to steady their sales.

  5. Back to the Pitch
    Elite football in England has been on pause since mid-March—but revamped team regulations and stadium procedures led to a return to the action in June. Under the Premier League’s Project Restart, each player, coach and essential staff member will complete a screening questionnaire and undergo a temperature check upon arriving at the stadium. Part of this process includes a “clinical passport,” a barcode that can be displayed via smart device or paper that reveals a person’s COVID-19 status when scanned. If a person tests negative for COVID-19 in the previous five days, they will be allowed to enter. Leagues will also ban handshaking, spitting and clearing of nostrils. Players will be required to use hand sanitizer upon entering and leaving the pitch.

    Upcoming matches are expected to be played in each club’s respective stadium with the exception of key matches, which will be hosted in neutral venues when mandated by the emergency services and safety advisory groups, or when games have to be switched due to a localized lockdown.

    Stadium seating capacity will be reduced dramatically for each game and patrons will have their temperatures checked. Social distancing of 2 meters (6.5 feet) will also be enforced—quite a shift for die-hard fans of the game.