The Flip Side of Lockdowns

A new study suggests that the rate of patent filings shoots up as high as 20% during pandemic-related lockdowns.

Converting 3-D printers to make face shields and other personal protective equipment. Installing contactless ketchup dispensers at restaurants. Even figuring out a way to stage live concerts, by having drive-in-style shows.

Do pandemic-related lockdowns bring on more innovations? According to a new study published just as a new wave of brutal government shutdowns emerged, they may—and certainly did during the last great pandemic in 1918. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a large research nonprofit, the rate of patent filings soared 20% during lockdowns longer than 90 days for multiple inventors, and 6% for single inventors. The study’s findings revealed the longer the lockdowns, the higher the rate—which measured patents per 100,000 people in 50 cities.

To be sure, none of the latest lockdown news—or almost anything pandemic-related—is welcome. But many experts say the results revive questions corporate leaders have over the role that social interactions may or may not play in terms of creativity—and how remote work may be interfering with it. For his part, Jonathan Wildman, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry Advisory who specializes in life sciences, says there is a worry that creativity may not be sustainable longer-term. “Some best ideas happen when two people go off on a coffee break, and that can be further developed from there,” he says.

Today’s current COVID restrictions make such meetings near impossible, of course. But Esther Colwill, Korn Ferry’s president of global technology industries, believes the study reflects how humans have a long history of working around constraints. This was true during the great plague of 1665 and other similar crises, she says. “It’s been part of the rhythm of how we deal with disease and viruses even before we had the science to deal with it,” she says.

The paper doesn’t cite specific examples of innovations but notes that the categories of patents that saw significant increases were textiles and paper, mechanical engineering, lighting and heating, and electricity. The last two were undergoing a radical transformation in the 1910s and 1920s, and many experts believe lockdowns increased the innovations.

As for current innovations, Wildman says, many workers may be developing ideas they already had before the pandemic. But if the lockdowns continue, there might be a problem in sustaining any creative momentum. “You might see a dip in creativity if the pandemic lasts two years or longer,” he says.