Op-Ed: The Pandemic is an Opportunity for an Innovation Renaissance

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While confronting the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt rose to the challenge to innovate by enacting the New Deal and told Americans that “the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” 

With over 150,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and with unemployment numbers resembling Great Depression figures, America’s clarion call to action for innovation to address COVID-19 directly, as well as the massive gaps in policy that this pandemic has exposed, is long overdue. We must respond in a manner that balances today’s public health and economic needs, but that also reimagines the systemic dysfunction brought about by decades of incomplete policy — the dire effects of which have been further exposed by this pandemic. Instead of remembering 2020 as the year of COVID-19 and failed leadership, we must transform this moment into the birth of an innovation renaissance for our nation. 

The economy will not fully recover until people feel safe, which is why we must prioritize innovation to respond to COVID-19.  We should engage large companies that have the capacity to scale the development of vaccines, treatments and materials for testing and protection. However, large companies do not own a monopoly on problem-solving so we should also engage all sectors from academia to start-ups to drive needed innovation. Such innovation should be realized in our online Zoom classrooms, as well as through the creation of new virtual portals that can aid start-ups to identify needs and as well as to access resources available from the government, philanthropists, and the private sector to support much-needed innovation to combat the pandemic. 

This pandemic has been a magnifying glass – exposing the consequences of myriad societal dysfunctions that we have been too busy to focus on until now, and we must take action. A number of these systemic disconnects have resulted from inattention to these issues and an absence of comprehensive policies. I know this first-hand. During my tenure as a Houston City Council Member, I advocated for policy remedies for issues ranging from the lack of broadband internet connectivity to barriers minority business owners face when trying to access capital. Now that the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on these issues, it is time to confront them. During this pandemic, we should reimagine our country’s landscape with respect to several issues – healthcare, technology and innovation, education, criminal justice, systemic racism, workforce development, manufacturing, internet broadband connectivity, and small business access to capital, among other issues so that the pandemic does not mark the beginning of a new era of more economic disparity.  

We have wrongly assumed that students across this country have been able to access Zoom calls for online schooling while at home during this pandemic. Although many are expected to access the internet while at home, millions of Americans cannot do so and are thus prevented from being able to work and learn remotely. This is not solely endemic to rural communities; I witnessed this first-hand while serving millions of residents of the fourth largest city in the country. We must invest in the necessary broadband internet infrastructure in rural and urban communities so that no American is left behind. 

In the spring, we witnessed entities like Shake Shack obtain Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) Loans rather than the mom and pop shops for whom these loans were intended. This is not an isolated occurrence; small businesses consistently face significant barriers to accessing capital from traditional financial institutions. Given that minority-owned businesses are three times less likely to access capital than their non-minority counterparts, I formed a task force to address this disparity in Houston and highlighted the need to incentivize lending to small businesses through a variety of means, including investment in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). We must drive resources to CDFIs and community banks that support more equitable small business ownership. 

George Floyd’s murder precipitated the nationwide push to combat police brutality and racial injustice. I remain encouraged that these efforts will result in meaningful long-term change. Likewise, we should be motivated to reinvent our health care system to provide more affordable access to care to stamp out preventable diseases, which have been lethal when combined with COVID-19. 

If we are smart, we will use this moment as an opportunity to create a new wave of innovation — calling upon every American to be the solution and participate in a national renaissance of innovation with respect to COVID-19 and in systems that fail Americans. FDR once stated, “when you have problems to solve . . .  you cannot get very far by just talking about them. We have got to go out and do something!” Let’s make sure that something is bold and happens now. 

Amanda K. Edwards is a former Houston City Council Member and ran for U.S. Senate in 2020

Photo: Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images

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