Innovation alarm bells should not be ignored

THERE has been a running controversy in the Forum this week about the rate of technological innovation. After an article by Norman Lewis argued that too much praise for Steve Jobs was a distraction from the importance of truly revolutionary scientific discoveries and world-shaping technological breakthoughs, readers have enthusiastically joined the debate, arguing both sides.

Tim Hammond voiced the pessimists’ view. It might seem counter-intuitive when every few months seems to bring a new digital wonder like Siri, the virtual personal assistant built into the iPhone 4S, but there is a significant body of research supporting the idea that fewer truly radical innovations happen today compared with the late nineteenth century.

In 2005, Jonathan Huebner studied US patent applications and found the rate of innovation peaking as long ago as 1873. In the same year, Ben Jones at Northwestern University discovered innovators were making their first breakthroughs later and later in life, slashing the years they had available for further creative insights. Sociologist Charles Murray’s survey of human accomplishment also found a per capita decline from 1850 to 1950.

The billionare investor Peter Thiel, most famous for his early involvement in Facebook and PayPal, is a prominent evangelist for this view, publishing an article titled The End of The Future earlier this month in National Review, the house journal of American conservatism. Where, such thinkers ask, are the jetpacks we were promised? The economist Tyler Cowen suggests we are living in a Great Stagnation, with sluggish inventions slowing our economic growth. Thiel is encouraging young entrepreneurs to leave university early to try and put youthful ambition to work on bold inventions as fast as possible.

And yet can that really be the end of the story? This week, the first vaccine for malaria was announced by GSK. Only fifty per cent effective, it is nonetheless a major milestone that could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year – malaria killed 781,000 people in 2009. The same week, UK-based Arm Holdings announced a new chip design for mobile devices, the Cortex-A7, that it claims will help connect the next billion people to the internet via low-cost smartphones and tablets affordable in developing countries. At the margins, at least, if not in huge leaps forward, our technology becomes more sophisticated all the time. Brian Arthur argues in his recent article for McKinsey Quarterly that digital technology is creating an invisible “second economy” that innovation hunters might miss.

But however unlikely it can seem, the big innovations do seem to be coming slower than they used to. If Cowen and Thiel are right, the economic cost of that is very real: we cannot rely on inventing our way out of economic trouble as easily as we hoped. Those who value innovation must recognise it is even more precious now than it used to be. If anyone can invent a way to speed it up again, that could just be the most important breakthrough ever.

First published: City A.M., 21/10/11

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Filed under Business, Economics, History, Human nature, Innovation, Science, Technology

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