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Innovation in a time of crisis

Innovation in a time of crisis


Major economic shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, make business prospects uncertain and companies less willing to invest in activities that are risky and whose returns are long term. Some ask: how can we prioritise innovation in the face of questions of survival? However, successful leaders know that crises will not last for ever and recovery will start eventually. The new economic landscape is likely to be very different from the old one, and in order to adapt to changing economic environments and stay competitive, organisations will have to innovate.

Embracing the change

Crises present organisations with unique opportunities that allow leaders to think more freely and move rapidly to create impactful change. As organisations grow, the structures underlying their stability, predictability and efficiency become stronger. Crises change that (1). For instance, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the higher education sector has to respond to many challenges including education continuity, the impact on exams, uncertainty over admissions, and the longer-term impact, both financial and reputational. Universities, where organisational structures and processes remained unchanged for years, face a stark choice: adapt or suffer severe consequences.

Although many institutions have been tinkering around the edges with online learning for several years, progress was slow. Now universities have closed their campuses, students have been sent home, and faculty are being asked to conduct classes online. At one stroke, all universities have been pushed into offering online learning. Embracing the change and investing in innovation suddenly became a means of survival.

In times of crisis, businesses have always been forced to regenerate and innovate. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to the “gales of creative destruction”: unstoppable but necessary forces to drive innovation in times of crisis (2). For example, in the 2008 economic crisis, companies that continued to focus on innovation, such as Amazon, were well positioned to put a substantial distance between themselves and competitors (3). On the other hand, companies that decided to de-prioritise their innovation efforts, such as General Motors, struggled to survive (3). This highlights the importance of investing in innovation before it’s too late.

How to drive innovation in a time of a crisis

  • Continue to invest in knowledge, human resources and structure

Research shows that continuing investment in knowledge, human resources and structures is the best way to cope with uncertain situations. New sectors and technological opportunities will emerge after the crisis and a process of re-specialization is expected to be crucial for recovery (5).

  • Identify new business opportunities generated by the crisis

With great change and uncertainty come great opportunities. Crisis often forces organisations to think outside the box. To deliver results and survive, they need to improve efficiency and eliminate waste. Bureaucratic processes are pushed away to make space for innovative thinking. The current situation has revealed a number of inspiring businesses that are finding new ways to evolve and seize opportunities that emerged from the crisis.

  • Move quickly, perfect later

Most organisations move slowly when making operational changes or commercialising innovation. This often stems from inefficient or unnecessary processes. In times of crisis, businesses must seize opportunities quickly (6). Procedures can be skipped or accelerated, rules can be side-tracked and decisions can be made more autonomously. The time for perfecting new products and services can come later.

  • Expand your networks and collaborate

Recent research finds that differences in individual creativity and intelligence matter far less for innovation than connections and networks. Effective networks allow people with different kinds of knowledge and ways of tackling problems to cross-fertilize ideas (4).

Rapid Response initiative

During a crisis, it’s important to gain insights from external consultants and experts who may be able to help you assess the damage your company may face, and help you respond. In the current situation, when meeting in person is impossible, seeking expert opinions must take place online.

To help businesses innovate in the current situation, Edinburgh Innovations has launched the Rapid Response initiative.

Rapid Response helps you collaborate with the University of Edinburgh’s researchers to adapt to the current situation and build resilience for survival and future growth.

The initiative consists of three opportunities:

  1. Rapid Response Workshops
  2. Rapid Response Explore- a series of webinars
  3. Rapid Response Funding

1. Rapid Response Workshops

This is an opportunity for your organisation to connect and collaborate with world-leading experts from the University through digital channels. Workshops are organised to discuss the specific challenges your organisation is facing or is likely to face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and explore how we can help you find innovative solutions.

To take part in the Rapid Response workshops, all you have to do is submit your questions. The challenges should be focused on maintaining and growing your business, adapting and innovating during and after the pandemic. Once challenges are submitted, we will find the most relevant academic experts to help find innovative solutions to your challenge. Find out more

2. Rapid Response Explore – a series of webinars

The Explore series of webinars has been created to provide a platform for organisations to hear from leading researchers from the University of Edinburgh. The series will see academics from different disciplines sharing their expertise, discussing the latest advances in research and presenting cutting-edge innovations and their potential impact on businesses and the economy. During the webinar, you will be able to ask questions directly to the academic speaker. If specific business challenges arise from these sessions, you can take them forward to the Rapid Response Workshops. The webinar topics and schedule will be published on our social media channels. Make sure you follow us to stay up to date:

The Rapid Response Funding call offers fast-track funding to collaborate with academics to respond to challenges or opportunities triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The intention of this call is not to address the virus itself, but rather to support businesses that have been impacted as a result of the pandemic to take advantage of new opportunities or tackle new challenges. Applications should be driven by an academic from the University of Edinburgh.

The funding can support collaborative research, innovation projects and virtual secondments. The latter is a great way of supporting organisations that may be experiencing gaps in expertise, knowledge and resources. If you would like to know more and discuss how you can access this funding, please contact us for more details.

Join our innovators

Edinburgh Innovations has streamlined procedures to help companies collaborate with the University’s academic experts, and we already have 40 commercial projects under way in response to the pandemic. Those projects range from increasing production of disinfectant to helping businesses improve their finances. Using our latest research to help your own organisation innovate could be our next collaboration.


We don’t yet know what the global economy will look like as we emerge from the fallout of Covid-19. It might not be enough for many companies to tweak their business models; instead, they will need to rethink more radically. Organisations should use the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity for innovating and driving useful change, so that once the crisis is over they can regain their strength and grow. With the help of experts from the University of Edinburgh, your organisation might be able to adapt to the new economic situation faster and respond to the changing needs of your customers.





  1. Clark L. (2020) Innovation in a Time of Crisis. Harvard Business Publishing. https://www.harvardbusiness.org/innovation-in-a-time-of-crisis/
  2. Reier S. (2000) Half a Century Later, Economist’s ‘Creative Destruction’ Theory Is Apt for the Internet Age : Schumpeter: The Prophet of Bust and Boom. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/10/your-money/IHT-half-a-century-later-economists-creative-destruction-theory-is.html
  3. Anthony S., D. (2009) After Lehman: How Innovation Thrives In a Crisis. Harvard Business review. https://hbr.org/2009/09/how-innovation-thrives-in-a-cr
  4. Barsh J., Capozzi M., M , and Davidson J. (2008) Leadership and innovation. McKinsey Quarterly https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/leadership-and-innovation
  5. Filippetti A., Archibugi A. (2010) D., Innovation in times of crisis: National Systems of Innovation, structure, and demand. Res. Policy http://www.danielearchibugi.org/downloads/papers/2017/11/striking.pdf
  6. Lyman L. (2020) Four ways to ensure innovation continues after the crisis. Chicago Booth review https://review.chicagobooth.edu/strategy/2020/article/four-ways-ensure-innovation-continues-after-crisis


How universities can help you unlock the power of data

How universities can help you unlock the power of data

1. Data is your future

Data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning are already revolutionising everything, from how we communicate with each other to how we treat diseases. In a world where big data has a role in almost every action we take, it is important to understand the implications of this rapidly changing landscape on your business.

Embracing the data revolution no longer provides an opportunity for companies to differentiate, but it is necessary for organisations that want to stay relevant now and in the future.

Data science can be intimidating and many companies still do not understand how to train their employees and adapt their culture to take advantage of the ever-increasing amount of information. However, you don’t need to revolutionise a whole business model in order to stay successful. What you need to do is take actions that will enable you to stay agile and innovative in the marketplace.

2. Connect with a community of data science experts

For most businesses, it is very challenging to transform processes and culture so that they can effectively draw on data analytics. This is where the expertise and facilities from universities come in. Companies can engage with academics across a wide range of disciplines. Their projects can often be underpinned by the strengths of infrastructure and facilities which can help to unlock the power of data efficiently, so that organisations can gain actionable insights, quickly. For instance, the University of Edinburgh is a world leader in science and engineering. Its academics continuously undertake game-changing research that provides new and exciting opportunities for industry partners.

Collaborating with the University of Edinburgh provides an opportunity for your organisation to embrace the data revolution, improving your products, services, customer experience and your overall organisational performance.

3. Support for organisations to upskill their staff, get funding and collaborate on big data projects

Data-Driven innovation (DDI)

The Data-Driven Innovation programme is part of the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal and aims to help organisations benefit from the data revolution.

The University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University are leading the delivery of the Data-Driven Innovation programme. There are four areas of activity that can support businesses: skills and talent; data analysis; research partnerships; and consultancy.

a) Skills and Talent

From banking and law to retail and healthcare, it is estimated that Scotland needs an extra 13,000 workers each year with digital skills (1). The University is contributing to the City Region Deal’s goal to deliver 100,000 individuals certified in data-science-related subjects over 15 years, through new industrial doctorates, industry placements for students and staff, internships and executive education.

b) Data analysis

The University of Edinburgh has facilities and expertise to help organisations of all kinds to improve products and services through better data analytics. As part of the Data-Driven Innovation programme, Edinburgh International Data Facility will offer a safe and secure environment for data analysis, allowing academics and industry to work together to deliver solutions to today’s social and industrial challenges.

c) Research partnerships

Big data and data science are creating new opportunities and challenges for industries.  The world-leading expertise from the University of Edinburgh can address these issues across various sectors, including public services, finance, agri-tech, and tourism.From commercial research with individual organisations to large-scale, cross-sector collaborations, the University can create multi-disciplinary research teams for bespoke industry challenges, combining this with data science expertise and facilities.

d) Consultancy

Through Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s research expertise is available to commercial and public-sector partners through consultancy. Edinburgh Innovtaions can connect the right specialist to address any industrial challenge and make the process easy and efficient, maximising the opportunity for innovation.

4. The University of Edinburgh’s expertise in data science

The big benefit of engaging with the University is that you can collaborate with experts from multiple backgrounds and have access to a vast variety of facilities and research projects. The University of Edinburgh can provide support in a wide range of data disciplines, such as:

  • AI, machine learning and IoT
  • Analytics and modelling
  • Business analytics, credit risk modelling and optimisation
  • Cloud computing and infrastructure
  • Data flows and real-time streaming
  • Data security and privacy
  • Databases, data quality, integration and exchange
  • e-health record and large scale “omics” analysis
  • High-performance computing
  • Image processing
  • Information visualisation
  • Mobile and location-based applications
  • Natural language processing
  • Policy and ethics
  • Search, semantic web and information retrieval
  • Text mining and knowledge discovery

5. Facilities to support data science and big data projects

a) Cybersecurity

The University of Edinburgh is one of 14 Government-approved Centres of Excellence for Cyber Security Research in the UK. The University is also home to the Cyber Security and Privacy Research Network, a multi-disciplinary group facilitating connections and collaborations across the University linking researchers in the Schools of Informatics, Engineering, Maths, Law and Social & Political Science.

Learn more about opportunities in Cyber Security.

b) High-Performance Computing

Based at the University of Edinburgh, EPCC (Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre) is the UK’s leading supercomputing centre, which hosts several national facilities, and has a global reputation. EPCC can support the creation of novel and high-performance software solutions for industry and commerce. As part of the University’s role in the Data-Driven Innovation programme, EPCC is home to  Edinburgh International Data Facility, bringing together regional, national and international datasets  to facilitate new products, services, and scientific studies. Learn more about EPCC.

c) Human-data interaction

The Centre for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh provides a platform in which design and data science can mix. The Centre delivers solutions for the commercial, cultural and civic sectors.
For example:

  • Security – applied ethics for secure domestic internet-of-things devices;
  • Health – informatics to support conditions associated with ageing communities;
  • Mobility – models of data-driven transport across civic and private networks;
  • Finance – payment services within peer-to-peer lending frameworks.

Learn more about Design Informatics

Get in touch to learn how the University of Edinburgh can support your organisation.

Success Stories:

The University’s strengths in data science have been driving innovation and supporting the needs of the public and private sectors, for years. Read some examples of how working with the University of Edinburgh helped organisations to unlock the power of data.

1. The University of Edinburgh and Legal & General partnership

The University of Edinburgh and Legal & General have announced a major partnership to improve understanding of care in later life and to revolutionise how it is delivered through data driven innovation. The collaboration will establish the Advanced Care Research Centre (ACRC), a seven-year multi-disciplinary research programme and the first of its kind in the UK. ACRC will combine research from the University of Edinburgh across fields including medicine and other care professions, life sciences, engineering, informatics, data and social sciences. The £20m agreement marks the University’s largest industry investment to be confirmed as part of the £661m Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative.

2. The University of Edinburgh and RBS partnership

RBS has opened a data innovation research unit at the Bayes Centre to stimulate ideas that will help develop new products and services. Data specialists from RBS now work with analytics experts from the University of Edinburgh to improve customer experience through data science.

3. Project Mercury- collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Tesco Bank

Project Mercury programme, a unique collaboration between the University of Edinburgh Centre of Design Informatics and Tesco Bank was designed to explore Fintech, develop talent and foster innovation and creative thinking. Through Project Mercury, Tesco Bank designers, software engineers, data scientists and programmers worked in partnership with both students and lecturers from the University of Edinburgh’s Design Informatics School. Internships have taken place in both directions – University staff working at Tesco Bank, and Tesco Bank staff working at the University. The partnership facilitated a lecture series open to all colleagues with topics such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and data ethics; exploring both current and future applications of these technologies and the impacts that these could have on society.

Discover the key areas of expertise at the University in data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning.


  1. Edinburgh Medical School: Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences. “Data initiative to tackle digital skills gap” Available at: https://www.ed.ac.uk/usher/news-events/news-2018/data-initiative-to-tackle-digital-skills-gap Accessed: 24 Feb 2020