A Global Pandemic —How to Maintain the Momentum of Innovation and Change While Not Going Crazy?

I was innocently travelling to see my grandparents, hearing about some obscure flu-esque wave sweeping into Europe, thinking “oh wow, the media are at it again”. Within 4 days, there was a national emergency, WHO declared pandemic status, and I was isolated in the Czech mountains with two grandparents, a dog and utter bewilderment.

To make things more ‘fun’, my entire family was ill (we don’t really know to this day whether it was COVID or not as tests were not available at the time). Moreover, about a week prior to the commencement of the pandemic I left my old AI job and was pivoting into a new career where I wanted to plunge into creating an innovative AI superhub out of the Czech Republic.

However, even given the undeniably tough times, many people were going through, I saw a lot of optimism, especially on social media. And it certainly wasn’t due to the algorithm-curated content of my social bubble, as I made sure to really search through social media platforms to find out how people were reacting and feeling. Not in a stalkery-way, mind you; as an anthropologist by trade, think of it more as academic deformation to see how “society reacts during a stressful time”. Not only was I pleasantly surprised that, rather than widespread panic, I saw an unbelievable level of grassroots organizing and, dare I say it, enthusiastic optimism even at a local level.

Moreover, my group of friends and contemporaries really showed leadership at unprecedented and mature levels, giving me further hope in the future of this nation, and I’m really excited that Aspen Institute Central Europe was, in many ways, the core of this wave of leadership and brought together fantastic people who significantly contributed to the Czech Republic being able to weather the COVID storm. Without being prompted, people began launching ambitious initiatives, from the digitization of the health sector, organizing the sewing of face masks, and kicking off hackathons to come up with solutions to a national emergency quickly and in an agile way.

As we have seen from several projects, the hunger for total digitalization has grown enormously during this crisis.

A Bit of a ‘Punk’ Nation

All you needed was an Internet connection, something to say, an idea, and a lot of sleepless nights. I’ve always seen the Czechs as being a bit of a ‘punk’ nation in the best sense of the word; throw a problem at us, and we’ll come up with (sometimes crazy) but ‘hacky’ solutions, and we’ll make it work. Almost oddly enough, we’re a nation that seems to function extremely well in chaos.

And the phenomenal initiatives I saw launched around me only proved the point. From the Anti-Panic conference, CoroVent lung ventilators, Czech. digital, the global #Masks4All movement, 3D printed face shields and respirators, ‘Energy to the Doctors’ (sending doctors across the Czech Republic nutritional packages to help keep them on their feet), to hackathons such as UniHack (the first-ever Czech online student hackathon aimed at using the latest technology to ‘hack our way’ out of the crisis). Everyone, everywhere, was doing something to help. Whether it was a local scouting organization buying and delivering shopping to local retirees, or a nation-wide ‘Hack the Crisis’ hackathon, the sudden momentum and hunger to help was unprecedented.

Make the Country more Resistant towards Future Stress

So what next? How did the technology come into all this? What lessons did we learn? And what’s next? Yep, all pretty heavy questions, which I’ll try my hardest to answer in the about 700 words I have left of the word limit.

Naturally, being a part of prg.ai and Startup Disrupt as well as spending the last 7 years trying to bridge the gap between humans and technology, my core interest during and after the pandemic (and also where I thought I could help most) was the arena of education around using ‘AI’ (I’m using the term loosely here, as a lot of the time, excellent work was achieved merely through the collection and processing of data without application of any specific algorithms, and this societal digitization in itself is worth its weight in gold) to make the country more decentralized and resistant towards future stresses, whether they be pandemics, economic crises or natural disasters. We have amazing technology at our fingertips and need to roll it out not only amongst the ‘startup elite’ but across all demographics and all geographic regions.

As we have seen from several projects, the hunger for total digitalization has grown enormously during this crisis. Interestingly, this is a well-known historical pattern, of the rate of innovation rising and new technologies being rapidly adopted during times of crises, whether they be military, ecological, pandemic or social. During these epochs, humanity tends to innovate sharply and move forward, and it will be no different with AI, which is in many ways the “technology of the day”. In healthcare and the education sector alone, for example, we noticed the jump in digitization and the increased pace and variety in the processing and collection of data, such as online teaching or ‘smart quarantine’. To what extent this is actual ‘AI’ is a different matter, but we are definitely starting to work with data in a more agile and complex way, and using the available technical tools more holistically.

For a long time, the Czechs have been the masters of underselling themselves and not speaking about their obvious achievements. COVID has brought this talent to the surface once more.

We Need to Implement Certain Boundaries

However, this goes hand in hand with regulations that are now being addressed more than ever, especially at the European level. So far, nothing has been carved in marble, but with the rise of technology, we have a big ethical legal debate about the application of AI in society. Corners had to be cut in order to roll out technologies during COVID, there was no time for extensive bureaucracy. Personally, I thought this was fantastic, but I also realize that in order to be scalable, we need to implement certain boundaries. However, we need to do so in a way that we don’t stamp out the pace of innovation so that Europe is able to compete with US and China and breed technological unicorns of its own and digitize its society and bureaucratic structures. I am honoured to be a part of a panel addressing this concept and am looking forward to future developments in this arena.

Hand in hand in unlocking the technological potential we have comes the, what I consider to be, the crucial question, which is giving the Czech Republic its self-confidence back. For a long time (perhaps since the First Defenestration and the Thirty Years’ War), the Czechs have been the masters of underselling themselves and not speaking about their obvious achievements. COVID has brought this talent to the surface once more and made us realize that we have some superb innovators, researchers and inventors in our midst.

The field of AI and technology, in general, is one where I am most hopeful we can build our global national brand because the talent we harbor in this arena is truly remarkable. With several organizations, like prg.ai and Startup Disrupt, we are trying to build this face of the Czech Republic as a global innovation and AI superhub, not only to cement the ecosystem here but also to attract people from abroad into our country who will further help us get into world awareness and create a melting pot of talent.

The way in which to do this is the fluid connection between the state, education sector (both university but also secondary and elementary school levels), and the commercial world. Most importantly, popularizing science and technology amongst people of all backgrounds and stepping out of research ivory towers will be key to truly democratizing our society through technology, and making sure that everyone has the necessary technological literacy to face off any crisis, present or future, personal or national.

COVID has been catastrophic in many ways, but I have seen a truly remarkable, common-sense, decentralized social approach in the country which I love, and this blend of grassroots organic organizing and cutting edge technology will be what makes our country stand proud and tall on the world stage once more.

We invite alumni of the Aspen Young Leaders Program to present their projects, thoughts and inspiration in Aspen Review. Aspn.me/AYLP

Sara (Boutall) Polak

is an Oxford-educated archaeologist and evolutionary anthropologist, who has spent the last 7 years working in technology startups in London, USA, and New Zealand. After almost a decade in the UK, she returned back to her home country to work in the local startup, innovation, and artificial intelligence scene
and strives to make Czech Republic into a global AI and innovation superhub. She is an Aspen Young Leader as well as a Bakala Scholar and works on several projects.

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