Accelerated Innovation in Times of COVID-19: The Journey for Malaysia

April 21, 2020

COVID-19 has unwittingly driven the innovation engine—often not the foremost priority for most organizations—forward in every layer and pocket of society in Malaysia. Whilst the outbreak has surfaced a range of development gaps, it has also unveiled hidden talents and innate capacity to learn and adapt ideas to local needs. 


Innovating, a counter intuitive practice. Photo credit: Peshkova/Getty Images



Innovating Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) 


From the grassroots

One innovation that has “gone viral” (ironically) in our country during this crisis is around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). With critical shortage of face shields and masks, front liners on duty have resorted to using garbage bags, cling wraps and plastic files to protect themselves. These grassroots innovations, whilst exciting, shed a grim reality on the ground. The lack of priority to protect our front liners was an unfortunate oversight, raising alarms on emerging issues that could jeopardize the nation’s recovery efforts.


Front liners innovating to protect themselves on duty. Photo credit: The Rakyat Post


The public also grapples with the lack of PPE, with face masks and face shields either out of stock or sold at an exorbitant price. People of different backgrounds are finding creative ways to adapt with temporary measures. Simple tools such as plastic bottles are being repurposed for extra protection.


A flood of grassroots innovations from all walks of life. Photo credit: Facebook user @Tommy le Baker


Stretching these grassroot innovation towards a bigger scale, we see potential for repurposing our factories and manufacturing lines to meet the increasing demand for PPE. Our manufacturing industry has been sitting on the idea of automation and digital innovation for a long time, to complement reliance on manual labour. Industries have always perceived the cost of transformation to be prohibitive. However, this pandemic makes a lucid and urgent case for change. Drawing examples from factory repurposing in China and the Philippines, our country office is moving ahead in discussion with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to consider it as a solution for current and future crises. 

From the civil society and business sectors

Though small and medium enterprises are struggling to keep afloat with the enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO), they are blazing trails with innovative solutions. Biji-Biji Initiative, a social enterprise that champions sustainable living and circular economy, are designing and making face shields for front liners. 


Open source face shield designs by Biji-Biji Initiative in collaboration with Me.reka, Taylor's University and Impact Malaysia. Photo credit: Facebook @Biji-biji Initiative


Different interest groups are contributing their skills in the best way they know how without any organization from the government. Over 4,800 members from the 3D printing community participated in a Facebook group called “3D Printing Malaysia Community for COVID” and self- funded face shields supplies for front liners. More creative resources for PPE also emerge in the process of collective brainstorming. Check out the capsulated stretchers!  


Capsulated stretchers on the left. Formidable local fashion designers, Melinda Looi and Khoon Hooi sewing medical gowns for front liners. Photo credit: Facebook @Biliran Provincial Hospital and MODA via Firstclasse


Local fashion designers joined forces to sew medical gowns for healthcare personnel. Inmates from the Malaysia Prisons Department and civil society beneficiaries who learnt sewing skills from livelihood programs prior to the outbreak are paying it forward to front liners with ‘home’-sewn masks. Talk about programme impact and return of investment!

From academia and medical centres

Drawing inspiration from South Korea’s phone booth-like COVID-19 testing stations, University of Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) health care professionals teamed up with prop builders to prototype their own negative pressure pod called ‘Project Cov-shield Prototype 1’. It saves time and minimises the risk of exposure to front line medical staff. The prototype was completed with virtual feedback and brainstorming sessions in the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission online group. 


UMMC and Macam Yes Studios with their Project Cov-shield Prototype 1. Photo credit: Facebook user @Kenneth Lim via Mashable SE Asia


Maker communities from other universities—University College of Technology Sarawak, Technical University of Malaysia Melaka, and Kinabalu Coders, among others—have also mobilised efforts to produce more PPE, e.g., isolation gowns, boots and hoods, by their own means. 

Meanwhile, multiple private hospitals have set up drive-through testing services, while insurance companies are providing full coverage on screening tests. In times like these, the speed and willingness of different sectors to organize themselves and innovate in a short span of 15 days is heartening news.

Innovating services and social assistance 

Panic buying started days before the MCO was enforced, leaving vulnerable groups with barren shelves. Supermarkets quickly responded to the emerging needs by setting up special hours for the elderly and disabled to do their groceries. 

To ensure continuity of regular aid to the homeless, NGOs running soup kitchens also tweaked their method by serving pre-packed food for pick up, with no more than five people in the room at one time in compliance to physical distancing rules. Local authorities have also done their fair share in preventing the spread among the homeless, by sheltering them in empty stadiums and community halls. Furthermore, 800 of them will be offered jobs after the MCO.


Kuala Lumpur City Council offering makeshift shelter to the homeless. Photo credit: Berita Harian


The tourism and hospitality, retail, and performing arts industries are among the hardest hit during the MCO. Yet, they are playing their part in curbing the outbreak while keeping their businesses running in the long term.

Hoteliers near hospitals are offering front liners free rooms to rest, and some have recently repurposed their premises as quarantine centres. Some malls have offered rental concessions to help retailers sail through the month and pick up business after the MCO.

The resilient performing arts communities are keeping their creative juices flowing with homemade Public Service Announcement videos urging everyone to stay home and stay united, despite the dampening circumstances of mass event cancellations. Much of the game vendors and art workshop providers are utilising ‘pay in advance’ marketing strategies to sustain income in the short run and allow customers to claim their services later.

In stressful times such as this, the arts communities are a major pillar in keeping the public’s mental health and family harmony in check. Online resources and workshops are being shared for free to entertain families at home and ensure children are educated despite the restricted environment.

Finally, accelerated innovation requires accelerated solidarity

Despite the efforts above, there are still many emerging holes to plug—like rise in scams, hacking, fake news, petty theft and domestic violence. Our country office and government are working hard to stay one step ahead of the virus and prepare for the long term.

But even with these plans, we can expect nothing less than more disruptions ahead. We can be sure that when one battle is won, another one lurks right around the corner. 

And if there is one lesson that the innovation journey thus far has taught us, it is that accelerated innovation is possible when there is accelerated solidarity. People across social divides, who never had a reason to work together are coming together to innovate and learn from each other’s successes and failures faster than before. Innovative solutions indiscriminate of race or background is our best and only bet in winning the war against an enemy that knows no colour or creed.

Without strong social cohesion, systems, structures and great ideas will fall apart. And unlike lab environments, where experiments and ideas are safe to fail, these failures will cost us more than we can afford, and often at the expense of the most vulnerable.

As Arundhati Roy aptly puts it in her ‘The pandemic is a portal’ essay,

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break through with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.