Innovation Starvation or Risk Avoidance?

While working on our report on Using Emerging Technologies to Address Global Risks, one of my favourite SciFi authors, Neal Stephenson, popped up with an essay on Innovation Starvation.

It echoes Tyler Cowen‘s arguments that all the easy big stuff has been done,  and that all we have left to look forward to are incremental improvements rather than world changing technologies.

Stephenson, being a science fiction writer, looks at space as an example where a culture of risk avoidance, cost cutting and politics combine to stifle innovation. As he points out, even China’s space program is merely copying what the USA and Soviet Union were doing 50 years ago rather than doing anything innovative.

It is undoubtedly a problem that plagues the world.  Whether it is large ambitious space programs, or providing a government stimulus for technology companies, the emphasis is always on avoiding failure, which involves avoiding anything innovative.  The million lost by a failed company always generates more headlines for governments than the hundred million successfully leveraged as we can see with the furore over Solyndra – although governments have a poor track record of picking winners.

So how can we kick start global innovation? As I argue in Using Emerging Technologies to Address Global Risks we need to focus on the big issues that we can all agree on. Water might be a good start.

Over the past five years I have come across numerous innovative approaches to water scarcity, from desalination plants that double as greenhouses to nanostructured membranes that dramatically cut the energy needed for desalination, but I cant remember a single one of them attracting significant investment. That wasn’t because the technology is poor, it is simply because of the costs involved in getting it to market put it outside the risk which any early stage investor would be comfortable with. Raising $50 million for social networking is relatively simple, but for water remediation it is a stretch too far. Development times in excess of 3 years and uncertainty about who will pay for the technology combine to make it almost unfundable.

For a small fraction of the current cost of dealing with drought – something that will only increase in the future – we could develop a suite of technologies to mitigate the shortage of potable water. But we won’t.

I’m not convinced by the innovation starvation argument, I think we have plenty of innovation but we lack the political will to deploy them.  The challenge isn’t so much stimulating innovation as effectively making the case for governments and international institutions to use it.

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