An invitation: University of Oxford’s response to COVID-19

Written by Mark Mann, Social Enterprise Lead & Innovation Lead for Humanities & Social Sciences at Oxford University Innovation and Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

The University of Oxford’s response to COVID-19 has been quite simply, remarkable. New ventures have been created, established and new ventures are pivoting, and new initiatives have been set up.

The Oxford Vaccine Group is leading the search for a vaccine. New ventures such as, OxSed and OxVent, are working across testing, diagnostics and ventilation. The Liber Project, CDL recovery, Oxford Foundry, OUI’s EMBA Mentorship Scheme and Oxford Together are supporting start-ups, scale-ups and projects to address the numerous challenges brought on by COVID-19.

Organisations have also pivoted. This includes OxLOD which enables the linking of open data to determine patterns and inform the most appropriate response, COVID-19 was the perfect opportunity to expand their technology for the healthcare sector. Another venture, OpenClinical, has pivoted by using their technology to get best practice to the medical front line as quickly as possible.

These responses and the behaviours of the University of Oxford to COVID-19 have revealed the latent structures, processes, and mental models we all use. COVID-19 showcased to the world our incredible and continuing ability to respond to such a crisis. But it has also highlighted a momentary peak in willingness to be malleable, adaptable, and entrepreneurial. An invigorating psychological willingness has emerged in Oxford which has expressed itself as a bias towards action, a sense of urgency when working towards a common goal, and an openness to challenge current structures, processes, and possibilities.

Frustratingly, many of these responses cannot scale soon enough to significantly reduce the short-term negative impacts of our current crisis. It can take a long time to create, build and scale many ventures. But we can also see the potential power of the ideas generated across our ecosystem to accelerate positive impact across the world; we must equip ourselves with the ability to do more, faster. We now have the opportunity to unpack these latent behaviours and collectively ask a question:

What structural changes can we make today to improve our nature of response to future challenges?

If a similar challenge appears in 2030, what can we do in the next 10 years to nurture different mental models and approaches to solving world problems, reconfigure relationships and build a smorgasbord of assets and tools to respond better and faster? Under duress, an individual, organisation and ecosystem often reaches for assets and tools that are readily available. Oxford’s response to COVID-19 follows this pattern.  It is very hard to build new things when under pressure to respond to an immediate challenge.

Looking towards 2030, COVID-19 has emphasized the interdependence of actors in our Oxford impact system. We believe there are a couple of transitions that need to occur by 2030. First is to move away from siloes and towards mobilising and capturing the value of our interdependence. Secondly, we need to create the appropriate structures, processes, mental models, and funding structures to incentivise collaboration, not competition. When Oxford is under pressure to respond to another crisis we need to have built new tools to overcome transactional partnerships. This is a long, but worthwhile, process. Three simple questions might get us started:

1) Who cares?

Which actors in Oxford are going to commit to the aim of doing better next time? What underlying assumptions, values and principles are unnecessarily holding us back?

2) How do we organise and fund?

What infrastructure and assets do we need to build or leverage? What data are missing to understand the underlying system structure?

3) What should we prioritise?

What does success look like in 2030? What is the roadmap towards achieving structural changes in Oxford by 2030?

Societal and environmental problems are not going away. Oxford’s knowledge and research is a stable foundation that we can leverage. For example, innovations developed through social sciences research have been particularly useful when building social ventures. The understanding of people and their behaviours is so important to bringing people out of poverty, upskilling them and working to improve social and environmental outcome.

Nevertheless, it is important not just to put efforts into developing the knowledge. Let us build up our capability to rapidly deploy these findings through new technologies, new ventures and new scaling pathways.

We do not seek to create yet another governance or oversight committee. We are seeking coordination without control, to create a platform for actors in Oxford that wish to embrace interdependence, long termism, to continuously improve and to maximise the positive impact the ideas and knowledge generated in Oxford can have on the world. The only questions remaining are – who cares? Do you?