Coronavirus and social innovation – Why we need to keep learning globally

As coronavirus is challenging global markets, and shining a light on many of our structural inequalities (most prominent is lack of access to wifi and resources for e-learning for many children when schools close), the power of ordinary citizens is coming to the fore once again. At SIX, we believe in looking beyond our borders to find new ways of tackling the biggest social challenges we face. And once more, we find ourselves looking to Asia.  

Many of the new solutions are being well documented in the local press but we see it as our responsibility to share some of these brilliant innovations more widely. Here are just a few of our favourites (which all happen to be in East Asia). This challenge is inherently political and so some are driven by strong governments and others are more citizen-led, depending on the politics and role of government in each context:

  • Singapore’s open data keeping the public informed – The Singaporean government is publishing clear, real-time, detailed data making sure its citizens are fully informed (including full details of each case, how they were infected, where they are being treated). They also released this endearing video explaining the way they collect data. This is a great example of providing public education and combating misinformation. 
  • Taiwan gets ahead of the game by using big data – Taiwan integrated their national health insurance database and the immigration and customs database to run big data analytics in identifying cases based on travel history and clinical symptoms when their citizens visit the clinics. 
  • Using data to ease the anxiety of citizens – Again in Taiwan, Audrey Tang, the digital minister set up a platform using real-time data to show where masks are available, saving the time and hysteria of people searching shop by shop for available masks. 
  • In Hong Kong and South Korea, there are several citizen-led initiatives for people to communicate with each other, for example using google maps/apps showing the local quarantined buildings. 
  • Matching resources and people in need in Hong Kong – As local supermarkets run out of rice and toilet rolls, low-income communities are struggling to access these basic goods. So citizens in Hong Kong are helping each other by bulk purchasing rice directly from suppliers and working with NGOs to redistribute rice to the economically disadvantaged communities. 
  • New kinds of finance – As well as numerous crowdfunding/crowdsourcing donations in several countries, philanthropic foundations are also experimenting with relaxing restrictions and bureaucracy around funding applications to allow for more reactive and spontaneous access to funds. 

More than new ideas – Changing narratives and changing roles

It is not only the new ideas, or new ways of using tech and data that we should be excited about. It is that everyone is beginning to question traditional roles. We are having new conversations and questioning dominant narratives of how things work – from the role of governments to companies, and even religious groups (as highlighted in South Korea). The way business in Hong Kong have reacted is a good example. They quickly stepped in where public institutions have left a gap – for example, in response to the shortage of masks, Hong Kong tycoon, Li Ka Shing, made sure the supply of masks was stable while not raising the price, and set restrictions on the number that could be bought by one person to ensure equal distribution, no matter the income. New World Development, a family conglomerate, invested in a factory so they could produce locally made masks. 

This is not a time to stop working globally

The rapid spread of the virus is also stirring up conversations about borders and nationalism again, as more and more countries physically close borders and people stop travelling. For us at SIX, this is challenging. We believe we need global learning and cooperation more than ever. We cannot close our global channels at a time where the best models, methods and approaches are coming from other parts of the world. That said, we will need to find new ways to connect and interact with our global colleagues and friends. 

So what after Coronavirus?

We need to find ways to sustain the positive effects of the crisis once it passes. How can we keep harnessing the energy of citizens to take more responsibility for the everyday challenges beyond the crisis? How can we encourage foundations to continue to keep their models lean and collaborative and not fall back on process and bureaucracy? How can we keep governments more open, more ready to collaborate with citizens and other organisations? How can we ensure businesses stay responsive and supportive of society’s needs? 

We all know a crisis spurs innovation, but the challenge for us now is to continue to live the effects crisis had in bringing people together and acting in a more local, resourceful and caring way.