Low-end Innovations in Times of Crisis

Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, people in different cultural and social contexts have been trying to cope with the situation. Due to the insufficient availability of materials like medical protective masks, people design their own solutions – sometimes with a lot of creativity. This shows that the creative potential of many can be tapped if those affected are actively engaged and so-called low-end innovations are allowed to develop.

Flight Planning for Butterflies

We live in a world in which plans must be discarded more and more often and more quickly. Two very helpful technical terms in this context are VUCA and wicked problems. A VUCA world is characterized by being volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. All in all, the ability to plan is strongly limited or even impossible – comparable to an attempt to predict the flight path of a butterfly …

Wicked problems in turn are characterized by typical properties [1, 2]:

  • The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation’.
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

The current corona crisis has been almost unanticipated in this form and only in retrospect will it become clear what was particularly useful or efficient. At the same time, social media contain a vast number of examples of how people deal with the situation and develop creative solutions. Wouldn’t it be nice to use and foster this innovative power in a targeted way?

Homemade face mask. (Photograph: Guardian Design)

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/06/how-to-make-no-sew-face-mask-Coronavirus. Retrieved 23-04-2020

Currently, we need solutions to many problems. Yet there are simply not enough resources for innovations to be developed based on careful analyses. The situation demands the use of the creative power of as many people as possible [3]. The development of innovations by many parties involved (open source, crowd innovation, citizen science) is something that can currently be observed everywhere but is still little categorized and promoted. It is noteworthy that the “inventors” are not driven by financial incentives. Moreover, we are dealing with phenomena of decoupling and deregulating production and consumption patterns – homemade masks, for example, do not have to meet industrial quality criteria (in the case of respiratory masks, standard EN 149:2001+A1:2009). Even though it is clear that such “simple” innovations will in most cases not substitute “normal” innovations – just imagine how a suitable vaccine against Sars-CoV-2 should be found with this approach –- there are ample opportunities to gain valuable insights for the time after the crisis into how “simple” innovations can enrich and complement the field of “normal” innovations.

A good solution to avoid infection?

https://www.boredpanda.com/creative-ways-people-protect-Corona-virus/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic. Retrieved 24-04-2020

In the current crisis, there are several factors that encourage the development of innovations:

  • Sense of urgency and alternative solutions do not work or are not available.
  • Small mental distance between innovators and customers (need is clear, customer empathy).
  • Enough leisure (attention can focus on the problem and then wander around freely for a while).
  • Low risk for the introduction of the innovation (this does not refer to the health risk, but to the social or professional status of the innovator).

These factors need to be analyzed in order to promote creativity and problem-solving skills. In the following, these points will be examined in more detail.

Creative solutions as low-end innovations. (Photograph: Masks 4 All)

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/06/how-to-make-no-sew-face-mask-Coronavirus. Retrieved 23-04-2020

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

There is a lot of scientific knowledge behind this phrase. In the context of the corona crisis, a special kind of innovation should be given more attention, the so-called low-end innovations. These are innovations that are at the other end of the spectrum of many high-end innovations, i.e. neither particularly complicated nor particularly expensive. Low-end innovations “[] defined as new products or services that expand a market by addressing consumers with a low willingness or ability to pay, have a dual purpose – they can be a prerequisite for firm survival and growth and a major driver of societal change” [4]. Currently, there are many examples of such “new products”, which are often helpful, mostly very creative and usually without commercial ulterior motives – and which will perhaps thus influence our society permanently.

What to do if there are not enough filter fleeces?

https://www.boredpanda.com/creative-ways-people-protect-Corona-virus/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic. Retrieved 24-04-2020

Not Customer Orientation, but Customer Empathy is Key

For decades, companies have been telling their employees to show customer orientation. At the same time, most new products are not very successful on the market. Subsequently, a fundamental misunderstanding should be clarified. With “orientation”, i.e. focusing attention towards a customer, I still know nothing about his or her needs that an innovation could address. Only when I can understand the views and experiences of a situation from the customer’s perspective I can start to understand poorly or insufficiently satisfied needs. So, it is about customer empathy (“walk a mile in my shoes”). One of the reasons why innovation methods, such as design thinking, are so successful is that they follow precisely this approach of customer empathy [5]. With the crisis, many people are becoming aware of which needs are really important and are using their creativity accordingly. So, the lockdown may also have a certain cleansing effect and issues such as sustainability or social responsibility may become more important.

How can babies be adequately protected? (Photograph: South China Morning Post)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4VqP6JevFA. Retrieved 29-04-2020

Focus on Distraction

When it comes to success in professional life, focus on essential issues is a frequently heard key factor. When it comes to creative solutions, however, a completely different factor comes into play: distraction. Studies have shown that creativity is particularly stimulated when a phase of concentrated dealing with a problem is followed by a phase of unintentional mental leisure and relaxation [6]. However, in most business contexts, reproaches such as “unproductive loafing” are quickly at hand. But looking out of the office window for hours could actually be a creative kick-start for the next innovation. During lockdown, many people suddenly have an unprecedented amount of leisure – and come up with amazingly creative ideas. It will be exciting to see how much of this balance of focus and distracted relaxation will be part of our new normality.

The important thing is that it is simple and cheap – and that it works! (Photograph: Twitter/@pinkstephness)

https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2020/04/auckland-s-zoom-cafe-beats-no-touching-rules-of-covid-19-alert-level-3-with-kiwi-ingenuity.html. Retrieved 28-04-2020

Failure and Learning as Drivers for Innovation

Success and expertise are closely linked. Or are they not? Many people fall into the mental trap of seeing their success as a result of their (innate) abilities. In such a world view one is creative or sporty or intelligent. If it is about deepening existing knowledge and skills, such a fixed mindset still works to some extent. However, playful failure and learning then becomes difficult. People, on the other hand, for whom learning across a broad spectrum is important, who do not mind failing in learning and who prefer to do rather than analyze, believe that potential can always be further developed. They have a so-called growth mindset [7], clearly visible in children.

People who prefer to show a fixed mindset in certain situations shy away from the risk of failing as non-experts. Innovations, however, are always associated with risks and frequent failure is typical for the development of many creative ideas. Under the particular circumstances of the crisis, a strikingly large number of people exhibit an openness to learning by failing and try things that they might not have tried in a “normal” context. It would be nice if a growth mindset was more prominent in (professional) everyday life.

A good solution to ensure social distancing? (Photograph: Dan Kuhnle)

YouTube/Dan Kuhnle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdPdMwzyDtE. Retrieved 24-04-2020

The current corona crisis is like a huge real-time innovation experiment. The creativity visible is a good example of the large spectrum of ideas people come up with, if they are able and willing. Transforming this ability into a new normality could be worthwhile for companies as well as for society. The task now is to take up the existing data and examples, analyze them and derive practical insights from them. Help us and send us more examples of low-end innovations in the context of the corona crisis!

Deane Harder

eMail: deane.harder@bfh.ch


  1. Rittel HWJ, Webber MM. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Classic readings in urban planning. Routledge; 2018. pp. 52–63.
  2. Conklin J. Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Wicked Problems and Social Complexity. 2005.
  3. Hautamäki A, Oksanen K. Sustainable Innovation: Solving Wicked Problems Through Innovation. Open Innovation: A Multifaceted Perspective. World Scientific; 2015. pp. 87–110.
  4. Reinhardt R, Gurtner S, Griffin A. Towards an adaptive framework of low-end innovation capability – A systematic review and multiple case study analysis. Long Range Planning. 2018. pp. 770–796. doi:10.1016/j.lrp.2018.01.004
  5. Liedtka J, King A, Bennett K. Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works. Columbia University Press; 2013.
  6. Kast B. Und plötzlich macht es KLICK!: Das Handwerk der Kreativität oder wie die guten Ideen in den Kopf kommen. S. Fischer Verlag; 2015.
  7. Dweck C. Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. Hachette UK; 2017.



Prof. Dr. Deane Harder is a lecturer and researcher for innovation, strategy and sustainability at the Institute for Innovation and Strategic Entrepreneurship at the Business School of the Bern University of Applied Sciences. He is a trained biologist and worked as management consultant and corporate developer for 10 years.

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