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Shared mission

The UK’s rapid production of ventilators to fight COVID-19 holds key lessons for tackling grand societal challenges like poverty and climate change, says a new study co-authored by Peter Williamson of Cambridge Judge.

A hospital ventilator.
Peter Williamson.
Professor Peter Williamson

The success of Britain’s VentilatorChallengeUK (VCUK) project to rapidly develop thousands of ventilators to fight COVID-19 (Coronavirus) provides important lessons for tackling some of society’s grand challenges including poverty, climate change and inequality, says a new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Managers can leverage these lessons by communicating a shared mission that transcends traditional boundaries, the way that President Kennedy rallied Americans behind landing a man on the moon in the context of the Cold War space race, says the study published in California Management Review.

The study also focuses on how to meet great challenges through “exaptation”, or the process of a product acquiring new functions that may have been unanticipated – the way microwave ovens developed from the accidental discovery that radar components generate heat. Exaptation in VCUK’s case involved the repurposing of design, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and production technologies from industries that included motorsports, aerospace, logistics and electronics.

“The success of the VCUK consortium reflects how innovation can be accelerated through multiple non-traditional strategies,” says study co-author Peter Williamson, Honorary Professor of International Management at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“The consortium had an open-innovation mindset that welcomed contributions from scores of partners; exaptation was much faster than mere adaptation in developing a new ventilator design; and there was a sound ecosystem strategy through leadership that welcomed knowledge sharing and coordination among partners rather than command and control.”

The study outlines how VCUK launched at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 when a worst-case scenario said that the UK National Health Service (NHS) might require 90,000 mechanical ventilators to help critically ill COVID-19 patients, at a time when the total available was just 9,139.

The VCUK consortium – with the support of more than 100 firms from diverse sectors including Ford, McLaren and Airbus – got a new ventilator design approved within 21 days and was producing in large volumes just weeks later. In parallel, VCUK supported existing production led by ventilator maker Smiths Medical through support from other partners including Rolls-Royce.

It turned out that the number of ventilators needed was not as great as feared, yet VCUK oversaw the production of more than 13,000 ventilators for the NHS by early July 2020, when the consortium ceased operations.

“The VCUK case provides potentially valuable lessons, not only about how innovation and delivery can be dramatically accelerated, but also insights into how complex social and business challenges can be tackled,” says the study. “An increasing number of challenges can only be tackled with access to sets of capabilities and knowledge that exceed those available within any one organisation, existing supply chain, or single technology.”

The study focuses at length on exaptation, or finding new uses for products through their latent functionality. In nature, this is reflected in how feathers evolved to keep creatures warm and later helped humans innovate the power of flight. Other industry examples include how unintended side effects for the treatment of tuberculosis led to the first anti-depressants.

“Compared with traditional innovation processes, exaptation offers significant advantages in terms of greater speed, lower cost, and lower risk (due to proven performance in the original application),” the study says.

The study also notes how the “Dunkirk spirit”, evoked often in Britain since the World War II evacuation from that city, played a role in VCUK’s success owing to a shared mission. The authors suggest this can be applied to grand challenges that go beyond the specific concerns of individual organisations or the people within them.

“Framing a problem in a way that makes it equally relevant to all involved makes the potential value that can be created by an ecosystem clear, which in turn encourages open innovation,” the study says. “What makes these challenges effective is that they are clear and focused, as well as complex and pressing.”

The study – entitled “Harnessing exaptation and ecosystem strategy for accelerated innovation: lessons from the VentilatorChallengeUK” – is co-authored by Wei Liu of King’s College London, Ahmad Beltagui of Aston University in Birmingham; Songhe Ye, a PhD student in the Centre for Technology Management at the University of Cambridge; and Peter Williamson of Cambridge Judge Business School.