Nicholas Haan knows a thing or two about disaster: over the course of his 25-year career, he’s supported charitable efforts in places as far-flung as the Nairobi slum of Kibera and post-2015 earthquake Nepal.
In his current position as the global solutions management director with Silicon Valley-based think tank Singularity University, he draws from that experience to show numerous technology-related enterprises, including Fortune 100 and Fortune 200 companies, how to face crises of their own: By treating them as opportunities.
“By their very nature, disasters provide an environment for innovation,” Haan said on June 7, during a presentation at the World Conference on Disaster Management in Mississauga, Ontario. “They force us to form uncommon partnerships, to think about unconventional ways to immediately solve a problem, because if we’re stuck in the old way of doing things and we see it’s not working, we immediately tend to get rid of it.”
Central to Haan’s lesson is the concept of exponential growth, which he illustrated using a single pixel that filled his presentation screen after doubling in size 22 times.
With technology, Haan said, exponential growth often manifests itself in the form of cheaper, higher-capacity materials that can support a wider range of tasks and be distributed to a greater number of users than whatever came before: Think 1982’s Osborne Executive, which cost nearly $2500 USD at the time and had a storage capacity of only 124 KB, or even the original 2007 iPhone, which had only 4 GB of memory.
Too often established, overly complacent companies will ignore their competitors’ exponential growth until faced with disaster, such as Kodak’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2012, after its linear-thinking executives declined to invest in the digital camera the company itself had invented, or startups such as AirBNB, which is currently valued at $10 billion USD – twice that of all Hyatt hotels worldwide – Haan said.
“The phrase we use is ‘disrupt or be disrupted,'” he said. “As a big corporation or a business, you either need to be constantly disrupting yourself or disrupting others, or someone’s going to blindside you with a new business model and disrupt you.”
In particular, Haan said that he champions a Deloitte-inspired approach of “innovation at the edge” that applies equally well to disaster management teams and corporations.
“A disaster management group cannot try out every new technology at once, because if you fail people are likely to die,” he said. “Rather, you try things on the periphery of your core business, let them act as if they’re in a startup environment… and if they succeed, then the company itself can merge with the new technology.”
Like the victims of real-life disasters, these new startup teams might find themselves collaborating in ways they hadn’t considered before.
“I had the privilege of talking to survivors from Christchurch, New Zealand after the  earthquake, and the storyline they continued to say is how the earthquake brought them together like they never had been together before,” Haan said.
Another component of the startup mentality, he noted, must be a willingness to embrace failure.
“By definition, if you embrace innovation, you have to embrace risk and you have to embrace failure,” Haan said. “The key is to fail fast, learn quickly, and pivot to your next opportunity.”