Innovation and crisis: comparing wartime strategy to our COVID-19 response

It has been the greatest challenge our society has faced since the Second World War. Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has required collective commitment, restrictions on our freedoms, huge state investment and borrowing on a massive scale.

It has also been a test of our capacity to innovate in the midst of an extreme crisis, a capacity that will become even more important as we tackle the climate crisis. When we compare the way Britain innovated its way to victory in the Second World War with the way we’ve tackled the coronavirus, how well have we done and what does this tell us about our capacity to tackle future crises?

At first sight the comparison is not flattering to a modern British state which has seemed to veer between making widely over optimistic claims about world-beating test and trace systems and dithering ineffectiveness. In terms of innovation, the Britain fighting COVID-19 seems a pale shadow of the Britain that fought the war. Yet the real lessons of the crisis are more nuanced than that.

Produce, procure or repurpose?

In a crisis speed is of the essence and a government has three options to provide a solution. It can produce new homegrown innovations to meet the challenge; but fundamental research and creativity takes time. It can procure existing solutions from elsewhere; that is much quicker but carries the risk that supplies of the right equipment might be hard to acquire. That is why the most effective strategy is often to rapidly repurpose what is already available. This crisis has been a test case of how to find the right balance between those strategies.

Britain’s success in the Second World War seems largely to have been the result of the first of those strategies, a flow of game-changing homegrown innovations that made the British war effort, especially bombing, far more effective.

The list of inventions in which Britain played a leading role and went on to have a huge influence on the post-war world includes radar, jet-engines, atomic power and antibiotics. Yet according to Professor David Edgerton of King's College, the foremost expert on wartime innovation, those that made a real difference were rarely glamorous: the proximity fuse which made anti-aircraft shells more effective at shooting down planes and later rockets; sights which made bombing much more accurate; plastic armour which was turned from idea into product in little over two weeks. There were game changing social innovations as well: Oxfam was founded in 1942; the seeds of the NHS were sown during the war.

That wartime record stands in sharp contrast to the dithering and confusion which has been the hallmark of our response to COVID-19. One explanation for the difference is that we had a very different innovation system in wartime. As Edgerton explains in his brilliant Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, wartime innovations were mainly produced by government research facilities employing scientific civil servants: the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough; the Research Department at the Woolwich Arsenal, the Signals School at Portsmouth and the Bawdsey research station which developed radar. The Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill was involved in the design of the Robinson decrypting machine and the Colossus computer used at Bletchley Park. During the war these research institutes took in young engineers and academics, not to invent new kit, but to improve existing products so they would work well at scale.

Government research labs worked in partnership with a capable and diverse private sector. Every major British firm was involved in wartime research and development. No fewer than four private sector consortia developed the jet engine: Vickers, de Havilland, Rolls Royce among them. GEC, Pye, Marconi and EMI played critical roles in developing electronics and radios, just as ICI did with pharmaceuticals, perspex and polythene. Those who now rail against the private sector’s role in public innovation as the offspring of neo-liberalism are well wide of the mark.

Global innovation marketplace

These days Britain has a completely different innovation ecosystem. It is much more specialised in a few fields, such as pharmaceuticals, where Britain has a global strength. Universities play a much larger role than they did in wartime: at the outset of the war, Bristol university, for example, only had 29 academics. We depend much more on globalised supply chains for everything from personal protective equipment to testing kits.

To put the contrast crudely, the wartime British state produced solutions, whilst the modern state mainly procures solutions, often from global markets. That partly reflects choices Britain has made but also the shifting context: innovation and production now comes from many more places around the world. It’s hard, even for a large economy like Britain, to be good at everything. The risks of Britain’s shift from producer to procurer is revealed through the story of the government’s often chaotic attempts at the start of the pandemic to provide enough proper PPE for health and care workers.

Britain was well prepared for the wrong pandemic: it had stockpiles of PPE to cope with an influenza epidemic but not the novel Coronavirus. After weeks of shifting guidance and a crescendo of complaints from health and care staff about inadequate supplies, there were a spate of stories in March and April about a Dunkirk-like operation by small producers making batches of masks and gowns using sewing machines and 3D printers. Brave and stirring though these efforts were, they were insufficient to the vast scale of challenge.

The wartime British state produced solutions, whilst the modern state mainly procures solutions, often from global markets.

Eventually the government created a procurement team of about 450 to acquire PPE amidst the mad scramble on global markets. Often it did not go well: deliveries from Turkey airlifted in by the RAF were not up to scratch. Amidst the £15 billion spent procuring PPE many contracts were awarded without competition to small companies with no track record in the business. In July the government claimed victory in the PPE battle, announcing it had delivered and acquired two billion items of PPE in the course of the crisis. A report by the National Audit Office found that most of the 8,000 plus contracts worth about £18 billion were awarded without competition, some on the basis of recommendations to ministers made by MPs.

A second report found that in the scramble on world markets to acquire PPE the government spent £10 billion more than it would have done a year earlier ordering 32 billion items, some of which were more than 1,200 per cent more expensive compared with the same time a year before. By July 2020, about 2.6 billion of these items had been distributed.

Yet why Britain found itself in this mess needs to be set in a wider context, according to Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy at Bath University. Britain’s reliance on procurement from global markets is also a reflection of our long shift away from manufacturing, in contrast, for example, to Germany.

As Pearce points out the key technology in the light blue face masks many of us now wear on a daily basis is a non-woven fabric of microfibres called melt-blown thermoplastic. The process to make melt-blown was invented in the Second World War by US scientific civil servant Van A Wente, who worked for the US Naval Research Laboratory (before going onto a distinguished career at NASA.) Wente was interested in whether microfibres could detect radioactive particles produced by nuclear tests. Only later did melt-blown become used for medical hygiene, after a wide variety of US companies, such as Exxon and 3M, licensed Wente’s publicly funded innovation.

The machines that make melt-blown mainly come from Germany. In the 1950s, Hans and Fritz Reifenhauser developed their father’s forge in the small town of Troisdorf to make melt-blown machines. The Reifenhauser group now makes three-quarters of the machines in the world that produce medical non-woven fabric. Troisdorf is also home to Innovatec, Germany’s leading producer of the fabric. To put that in perspective, Troisdorf, the world’s centre for this technology, has 75,000 inhabitants, which makes it about the size of Tamworth in Staffordshire or Corby in Northamptonshire, both of which in their day were manufacturing centres.

It seems an open and shut case. Britain, a producer of innovation in wartime has become a mere procurer during the COVID-19 pandemic and a not very well prepared procurer at that. Yet the story is not so simple.

Britain’s history of glorious failure

Britain’s record of innovation during World War II was at best patchy. Many of those innovations, especially the gadgets beloved by Churchill, did not work. They were glorious failures. Britain’s successes were built on a mountain of wasted resources. Seen in that light, the money wasted on ineffective PPE seems much less of an issue.

Barnes Wallis, the iconic British wartime inventor, was a case in point: his bouncing bomb was largely ineffective. The Pluto pipeline laid to deliver oil from the UK to allied troops in France did not deliver a single drop for the invasion of Normandy. One of the two vast temporary Mulberry Harbours designed to support the invasion was washed away in its first storm. The innovations that made a difference tended to be robust and humdrum: the very basic Liberty ship which kept Britain supplied with imports was a classic example; the low-cost Anderson air-raid shelter installed in thousands of London gardens was another.

The political appeal of whizz-bang gadgets has not waned. The saga of Britain’s ‘test-and-trace’ app seems to show that when the government does decide to go it alone and produce a homegrown innovation we now lack the capability to do so, not least because the most effective digital technology is developed by global companies such as Apple and Google that were not around 60 years ago. We chose to produce innovation precisely when we should have procured it.

In mid-May, the health secretary Matt Hancock, a digital enthusiast, let it be known that a homegrown app that he had been championing was just weeks away from its national launch. The app would be a bit like a ray-gun, it would help to ‘hunt down the virus so it was unable to reproduce’ he predicted. Yet by late June the team of 160, who had been working seven days a week for several weeks, were told that their homegrown product, developed at a cost of £12 million, was being abandoned in favour of an alternative developed by an alliance between Apple and Google which had proved far more effective. A version of this solution had been adopted in Germany, Italy, Japan and Denmark, among other places. It took Ireland a few weeks to build on the Apple-Google solution to develop an app at a cost of £773,000 that was downloaded more than 1.3 million times in a little over a week.

Rapid repurposing

The lesson of the failed homegrown test and trace app seems to be: better to procure than produce especially when others have much stronger technological capability. Yet the Irish strategy points to a third way: the most effective approach to innovation in a crisis is to repurpose what there is rather than invent it from scratch or to buy it as a finished product on global markets.

The vaccine developed by scientists at Oxford University in record time is arguably a case in point. The basis for the Oxford vaccine – ChAdOx1 – has been used to develop vaccines against several pathogens, including the closely related coronavirus that causes MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome. The Oxford scientists quickly adapted the ChAdOx1 “platform” to tackle SARS-CoV-2 when the first cases of COVID-19 emerged.

The capabilities needed to repurpose what is already there cannot be willed into existence overnight. The drug will be made and distributed by Astra Zeneca, which was formed in 1999 when the Swedish drug company Astra merged with Zeneca, the former pharmaceuticals arm of Imperial Chemical Industries. The once-mighty ICI, the British equivalent of IG Farben in Germany and Dupont in the US, got into pharmaceuticals by making tens of millions of doses of the critical antimalarial drugs Atebrin and Plasmoquin during the war. This capability developed in wartime is the kernel of the company which hopes to be able to make many millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

And while we are waiting for our vaccinations we will depend on treatments for the life-threatening symptoms of the virus which come from repurposing existing drugs such as dexamethasone, a steroid and Remdesivir, an anti-retroviral. Since the crisis started huge advances have been made within intensive care units in hospitals to reduce death rates, innovating on the job, adapting existing equipment and protocols.

The value of repurposing what already exists is underlined by the government’s ill-fated Ventilator Challenge, a test case of these different strategies: procure, produce or repurpose.

Code-named Operation Last Gasp when the Prime Minister first enlisted British manufacturers to pivot their production lines from aero engines, vacuum cleaners and racing cars to ventilators, five thousand companies and 7,500 staff responded to the challenge to design new ventilators, in what was billed as a showcase of British engineering prowess. Companies such as Dyson and Babcock joined universities and Formula 1 teams only to find they were sent down blind alleys to design, from scratch, machines that clinicians would not use.

Those in the industry who suggested that it would be more sensible to produce more machines based on existing designs were eventually vindicated. The challenge did not produce a single machine based on a novel design; instead, it was used to scale up UK production of 14,000 ventilators at a cost of about £450 million. The main usable innovation was a version of an existing British machine which was upgraded so it could be exported.

The 2,500 ventilators the UK procured from abroad were more sophisticated machines needed to sustain people in intensive care for weeks on end. The most famous manufacturer of those high-end machines is the family-owned German company Draeger, founded in Lubeck in 1889, which made the first-ever ventilator, the Pulmotor. The company’s latest product, the Pulmovista 500 visualises the flow of air through the lungs in such detail that clinicians can monitor it in real-time and make minute adjustments to the flow. The company’s chief executive, Stefan Draeger is the fifth generation of the family to lead the company. You do not invent that kind of capability from scratch in a few weeks.

The most effective innovation in a crisis relies on adaptation: using existing knowledge and skills to repurpose existing technologies.

The Ventilator Challenge could be dismissed as political theatre. Yet it was also a test case of what kind of innovation works in a crisis. Designing things from scratch, doing fundamental research, is very difficult, especially if your firms and universities do not have deep knowledge of the field. Procuring solutions makes sense if there are capable suppliers and this is well thought through in advance. The most effective innovation in a crisis, however, relies on adaptation: using existing knowledge and skills to repurpose existing technologies.

That is not a recipe for innovation in the long term, which requires leaps of imagination and risk-taking, often by maverick outsiders prepared to challenge conventional wisdom. But it is probably the best approach to a crisis, including war and perhaps the crises that will come with the climate crisis. Tackling the climate crisis will require radical new technological leaps, yet there are many who think the technologies we need are already available, we just have not found the will to apply them effectively. The tipping point will come not from the invention of new technologies but rather the creative repurposing of technology that already exists.

If repurposing proves to be the most important of the three strategies then it matters a great deal what capabilities a society has when it goes into a crisis. Such capabilities cannot be conjured up at will. If COVID-19 has been a foretaste of the deep and protracted crises that may come, then the lesson is that a society needs a widely spread capability to reconfigure itself rapidly. It will need institutions and people capable of combining those capabilities at speed to solve urgent problems. That capacity to repurpose fast should be at the heart of our post-crisis economic and social strategy.

Innovation and crisis continued

Is our fight against COVID-19 a critical juncture?

Read the second essay in the series


The six factors that spark radical innovation in turbulent times

Read the final essay in the series

Yellow wall and green stairs


Charles Leadbeater

Charles Leadbeater is a Nesta Fellow and leading authority on innovation and creativity. He has advised companies, cities and governments around the world on innovation strategy.