Some of the most useful inventions were largely accidental. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is a famous example. In 1928, he came home from vacation and found that a mysterious mold had killed some Staphylococcus bacteria he’d been growing in his messy lab. Alexander himself described the discovery as accidental. But as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWI, he’d seen countless soldiers die of sepsis, and so he made it his goal to find antibacterial substances. Even if the mold weren’t the direct outcome of a deliberate experiment, it solved a consequential problem that had been on Alexander’s mind for over a decade.
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, as the world rushes to squelch this virus, we are also undergoing a forced experiment in rapid digitalization. Right now we’re in the “messy middle” — to borrow a phrase from Adobe’s own Scott Belsky. But at some point we’ll be able to look back and list all the useful technologies and practices that emerged during the pandemic. Many of them will solve short-term problems arising from the crisis itself — and some will also move us closer to solving other problems we’ve been thinking about for years. If we’re lucky, a few may be in the league of Alexander’s discovery of penicillin, which transformed modern medicine.