In cloudy times for business and the economy, some signs of silver linings

From tech to tourism, and from real estate to retail, businesses of all descriptions are adapting to the reality of life in the coronavirus era and whatever follows. It is difficult for all and frightening for many.

With many people facing daily if not hourly challenges to business survival, it can be hard to spot trends that may leave the economy stronger once the public health crisis passes and consumer confidence slowly returns. Here are a few possibilities:

More businesses are embracing technology as integral. For some in Wisconsin, “Zoom” was a term for racing around the speed trap in Rosendale and “social media” meant swapping stories around the water cooler. Today, many are realizing that communications technologies can help keep their own teams together and their customers connected. You don’t have to be Amazon to take advantage of tech platforms, but to do so …

Wisconsin must continue to improve its broadband penetration. An analysis by Broadband Now using Federal Communications Commission and private data shows Wisconsin just below the middle of the pack (29th among the 50 states) on deployment measures. At 91 percent, that’s just behind Michigan and Virginia and just ahead of Tennessee, Kansas, Kentucky, and Iowa. Wisconsin’s 10-year growth in penetration has been 22 percent. State policymakers may be able to leverage aspects of the federal relief bills to move the dial, as closing the remaining gap — the so-called “last mile” — will be the most expensive task.

The COVID-19 virus has made “telemedicine” even more essential. Telemedicine is a broad term to describe the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology, which relies on strong broadband. As health systems combat the COVID-19 outbreak, telemedicine offers a path to help determine which patients can be safely treated at home and which cannot. It enhances safety for medical professionals, who are not exposed to as many virus-positive patients, and less expensive, too.

Systems such as the Marshfield Clinic, which covers much of northern and western Wisconsin, have used telemedicine technologies for years to reach patients who otherwise might need to drive miles to reach the nearest facility. There are many others who employ it. Long after the virus has subsided, telemedicine will offer economic and health benefits to rural communities.

The virus response may trim unneeded regulatory barriers. The mobilization of research and development resources around the COVID-19 fight has been nothing short of impressive, from the search for a vaccine to the production of personal protection equipment, ventilators, and more. Will the speed on innovation be matched by the pace of regulatory approvals, or will barriers unneeded for public health and safety tumble?

The jury is still out on that question, although there is a growing sense the system must respond as quickly as feasible. For example, vaccine development has always been a deliberate process, and shaving even months in a two-year-plus cycle will save lives.

Science is part of the solution versus something to be ignored. Science is a tool. It doesn’t provide answers by itself but responds when it is skillfully leveraged by people who understand how to use it. In the United States, which is home to many of the world’s most adept scientists and technologists, the effort to control COVID-19 has a strong foundation. Those experts can be found in the private sector, in public agencies, and in academia, which will be called upon to apply basic research as well as applied research to the crisis.

For the academic community, it means continue to improve “tech transfer,” which is the process of moving ideas from the laboratory bench to the market and society. While there will always be those who look skeptically at science and some who aspire to bash it, there may be a growing sense of its role in getting life and the economy back on track.

It’s hard to look ahead for years or months when the nearest challenge is hours away. Out of this crisis, however, there may come reasons for hope.

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