Episode 21: The Value of Constraints in Fostering Innovation

by | Mar 9, 2020 | Ed+Tech Futures Video

Welcome to Education and Technology Futures, a videocast that highlights interesting trends and connections in the worlds of education, technology, and culture.

Catastrophic events like the COVID-19 virus are incredibly disruptive in education but they also provide the necessary constraints for positive, systemic change in the future.

Full Transcript

Full Transcript

The COVID-19 outbreak has me thinking quite a bit about constraint exercises these days. These are the exercises and processes we go through when we have to do something but are confronted with rigid constraints that force us to think and act differently than we might normally.

These constraints, while frustrating, can also be a good way to stimulate creative thinking and innovation.

They’re the driving factor behind movies like Apollo 13 and The Martian and have helped engineers come up with amazing solutions to real-life needs, such as shrinking massive EKG machines into small, battery-powered portable devices that can be carried on bicycles to reach rural areas in countries like India.

Now, most of us experience constraints frequently in our personal and business lives. Unfortunately, we don’t generally factor them into our planning, which is too bad. Because thinking about and anticipating possible constraints can also help us discover new solutions and improved ways of doing things.

Such was the case at the end of the last century when everyone began preparations for Y2K. IT departments at large and small organizations alike scrambled to update computers and networks to ensure that systems remained up and stable when internal dates turned to the year 2000. And, while some would argue that Y2K concerns were overblown, the rigid time constraint around the event led to an incredible amount of positive planning and process innovation across organizations.

Fast forward to March 2020, and most companies and education institutions are facing a growing number of possible constraints related to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Will schools need to close? Will higher ed institutions be forced to deliver part of a semester entirely online to all students? What will happen if students can’t return to campus from spring break trips? Is it possible that the short-term shocks we’re seeing at the present moment could extend into the next academic year? What will happen to our many educational conferences?

These are definitely real and serious issues with both global and personal impacts and, thankfully, people like Bryan Alexander have done a wonderful job providing information and asking questions in an effort to help people plan.

At the same time, we should keep in mind that difficult events like the Great Recession and the spread of COVID-19 also provide us with the constraints that are generally necessary to force aggressive innovation and creativity. They force us to deal with the present moment but also provide lessons and new product and operational models that help us emerge from tragedy stronger and more effective than ever.

Accordingly, I believe this current constraint exercise — the COVID 19 virus — will also lead to improved models for online learning, innovations in assessment and performance evaluation, and better solutions for remote collaborative work. Equally important, it will spur many schools and institutions to find new and improved ways to serve students and their families.

So, while it’s incredibly difficult to confront these catastrophic events, it might help to keep in mind that they also tend to provide the necessary constraints for positive, systemic change in the future.

It’s something to think about.

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