Innovation & Design

Recession: The Mother of Innovation?


Our special report looks at innovative ways businesses can turn the troubled economy to their advantage

Necessity may be the mother of invention. But could a recession be the mother of innovation? After all, many of the world's enduring, multibillion-dollar corporations, from Disney (DIS) to Microsoft (MSFT), were founded during economic downturns. Generally speaking, operating costs tend to be cheaper in a recession. Talent is easier to find because of widespread layoffs. And competition is usually less fierce because, frankly, many players are taken out of the game.

Recessions can also help executives figure out how to improve products, services, and processes internally and for customers. Ideally, the creative thinking that's needed to weather the storm of an economic downturn can lead to new markets and revenue streams. "Innovation originates from challenges," says Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, a Noida (India)-based global IT services company.

HCL recently partnered with Xerox (XRX) to provide tech support for corporate customers using Xerox systems meant to reduce the amount of wasted paper. The systems themselves were inspired by the dual challenges of helping to save the environment and the need to slash office expenses during the downturn.

Inventing cost-effective and time-saving processes becomes a priority in a downturn, and it's an area of interest for companies and organizations in a variety of fields, from high tech to health care. "In a recession, you can innovate to be more efficient," says John Kao, author of the book Innovation Nation and the head of Deloitte's Institute for Large Scale Innovation.

Lessons to Be Learned

Sure, there have been some signs lately that the economy might be picking up—Apple's (AAPL) quarterly profits jumped 15%, for instance. But a recent survey by consulting firm Bain & Co. found that 60% of 1,430 global executives polled expect the current recession to last through 2010.

And smart companies will continue to apply the innovation lessons learned during today's tough times even when things pick up. The innovative processes, products, and services that hatch now can help executives understand how to curb costs or take risks on fresh ideas when the economy rebounds.

In this special report, we look at the current recession through a variety of lenses to help you rethink how to approach innovation tactics even as R&D budgets have been slashed. We talked to executives who are finding inventive ways of keeping employees motivated and creative even when morale is low. We look into the benefits of outsourcing innovation in areas ranging from industrial design to corporate strategy. And, to prove there's light at the end of the tunnel, we offer a historical slide show of inventive corporations that were formed during previous recessions.

See the Innovation in a Recession special report.

Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.

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