But those when crises are felt are more so because the survival instinct pushes even more to seek solutions: the need to find simple, cheap, effective and intelligent solutions are all the more necessary in these times. For example, wars have always been favorable to innovation. So the current health crisis will be very favorable to innovation in order to be able to bounce back towards new solutions that are more reliable and meet the new needs created by the crisis.
Among the needs created, we are obviously thinking of hygiene, improving the fight against bacteria and viruses, but we must take into account that this crisis has changed our world and our organizational paradigms: Thus, innovations will also flourish in the world of travel, in the way work is organized, food production, the manufacture of materials, in the way we approach social proximity, etc. Our living conditions have to be reinvented: high mobility, high population concentration and diminishing resources are new challenges for innovation. Globalization has been completely overturned by this crisis: this upheaval has already redistributed the cards, for example by creating value on existing tools that have suddenly become essential in this time of health crisis, and this upheaval will continue to generate many innovations to meet the new needs of this globalization that needs to be reinvented.
For example, in the organization of work, until now it was mainly manufacturing plants that were delocalized, the jobs of technicians and workers in the factories were essentially impacted. But this crisis has shown us that it is possible for managers working initially in offices to work in remote together with their colleagues 10 to 50 km away. This demonstration opens the door to the possibility of organizing telework on a larger scale with people even further away, 5000-10000 km and more. Psychologically, it will now be acceptable and normal to see international recruitment for a position not necessarily based in an office, in order to be able to recruit the person with the best skills who can telework.
So to meet all these new needs, smart materials have a major role to play and will be at the heart of many innovations.
Materials are said to be smart when they are designed to be sensitive, adaptive and evolutionary. Thus, these materials will have an "intelligent" functionality that will enable them to interact with humans to a greater or lesser extent: as an example, we can mention shape memory materials, sensitive to pressure and heat, but also self-healing materials often used in automotive paints so that scratches "heal" by themselves or self-cleaning materials with a specific surface treatment for better hygiene.
Among smart materials, e-materials are going to become essential in the new innovations to come: the design of e-materials consists in integrating electronics into the material itself, thus providing it with a generally connected functionality: the integration of this electronics obviously requires a revolution in electronics by using, among others, electronics printed on flexible plastic films but also on/in plastic, composites, etc. or in textiles. Also miniature components are often integrated in printed electronic circuits.
The integrated electronics will include sensors detecting e.g. temperature, humidity, or pressure to make surfaces tactile; also, the integration of LEDs providing light but also vibrators to make surfaces haptic. These e-materials allow objects to acquire a certain "intelligence" by detecting parameters, analyzing them and sending them to human beings in real time.
Thus flexible displays and flexible sensors will transform wearable technology by enabling objects and devices to conform to our bodies and our clothes while optimizing utility and answering to new needs linked to the health crisis.
There is already a lot of applications of these e-materials today: Consumer electronics, Automotive, Healthcare, with for instance the monitoring of patients and information sent to the caregivers in real time, wellness, Sports with for instance the application of monitoring of vital parameters to optimize performances, Military/defense, Design/events, Buildings with connected houses, others (aeronautics, energy...etc)
In health crises, we saw how we need to re-organize life: home-office, no contact, detachment, dematerialization, infection control in hospital and public areas…etc E-materials could answer to these needs with devices having connected haptic touchless surfaces preventing infection control…etc Diagnosis could be well done remotely thanks to these wearable technologies. The integration of bacteria/virus sensors could of course also help in health crises.
And beyond the direct needs linked to a health crisis, the future smart materials could answer to new trends: IoTs and robots helping people remotely in their tasks, avoiding direct human contact, helping the telework and interaction between colleagues…etc, in the organization of smart and connected cities, public devices, public areas… And combined with Artificial intelligence, these solutions could bring real disruptive innovations in forecasting and anticipation of health crises but also to better manage globalization for instance.
The covid-19 crisis showed us that the impact of humans on nature is clearly important and harmful.
More and more people realizes this impact and that pushes to innovate more sustainably. Green and smart materials inspired by nature (biomimicry approach) will have a main role in these new trends and the ecological transition:
Trees are endowed with an unsuspected intelligence: in a forest, trees will communicate and interact with each other in order to preserve each other from external attacks (heat, wind, fire…etc) ; also trees send information from the tips of their branches to their roots in order to preserve their vital balance: thus we could imagine that smart materials could help us to create a system in the image of the ecosystem of a forest where each one would be a tree able to detect external aggressions (temperature, toxic gases, bacteria, viruses...etc) through connected clothing, being able to inform us of the measures to be taken more quickly and to preserve a better balance.
Also, the aeronautics world is being hit hard by this type of crisis, and at the same time it is being pointed at for its impact on the environment: the pressure is very strong in this field of activity, the need to implement green solutions for the manufacture of aircraft is vital today. The Biomimicry approach can also play an essential role in meeting these challenges.
Health crises push us to reinvent our world and innovation is the key! We have a lot of opportunities to transform our world and we could say thanks to the covid-19 crisis we have the luck to reconsider our organizations and current solutions to develop a better environment-friendly world!
Laetitia is an expert in innovation and has a deep experience in smart materials. Engineer with a PhD in Materials Chemistry, she started her career in the academic field as researcher and then had been working for more than 12 years in industries as Innovation leader for international markets like the medical devices, environment, automotive, robotics, electronics... She recently set up her own consultancy company in innovation strategy offering different services to companies around open innovation, setting up of technology partnerships, technology expertise (especially smart/advanced materials and e-materials), and sustainable innovation especially thanks to the Biomimicry approach.
June 8, 2020