Prized Innovation

by | May 30, 2023

Prized Innovation, Nurture, Vaclav Smil

One of my most prized possessions is my cordless vacuum cleaner. I use it daily  because I love a clean floor (and I also like to procrastinate from work). I recently upgraded to the latest model, after 8 years of owning my previous one. I didn’t do it sooner because I told myself I had to use it until it was on its last leg, not to be wasteful. I was so excited for the arrival of the new one that I didn’t vacuum the floor for a couple of days because I wanted to see just how much better the new model was going to be. This was really hard to do as seeing bits of debris on the floor always makes me anxious. Once the package arrived, I tore through the layers of packaging to start what I hoped would be a major upgrade to my cleaning experience. Alas, the elevation I was looking for didn’t come! My new vacuum only delivered a marginal improvement. In one aspect, it delivered a worse experience, the handheld head is much heavier and longer. I guessed this was how they could extend the battery life, which has tripled in time (depending on the mode of use). As to the cleaning there is a noticeable improvement on carpets, no odd hairs left on the floor.  On hard floors there is a new illuminated roller head that highlights particles you can’t easily see. This last feature I really don’t need because I have razor sharp eyes for detecting dirt on surfaces, hence my vacuum mania. I expected more!  Not sure exactly what, but certainly not a heavier machine.   It got me thinking, is this the best technical improvements they could come up with in 8 years? If so, why is this? 

Fast-paced innovation

I have similar questions about other technologies that impact my life. I love the washing machine and I’m thankful I don’t have to hand wash my clothes, but how I use it has been pretty much the same my entire adult life. Sure, now you can get a passable clean in 15 minutes but it still requires the same manual intervention from me: sort clothes, pre-treat stains, load the machine, add detergent, unload, hang to dry, then fold and God forbid even iron! Then there is flying. Travelling to New York from London is still as long and uncomfortable as it has been since I first went 30 years ago. And where are the fully self-driving cars that were supposed to be here by now? I know, these all sound like indulgent questions but I have more serious ones. Ever since I read The Big Necessity, I’ve been perplexed by why over 2 billion people in the world lack basic sanitation? And, why do we still have 1 in 3 people in the world without access to clean water? Why are there 775 million people without access to electricity in the world? It’s not like we don’t know how to provide clean water or electricity, right? As someone who has spent a few years working with organisations that develop a plethora of solutions from toothpaste to computers to high voltage switch gears, I know the broad answer to my questions.  Innovating is a really lengthy and hard pursuit.  It is one thing to invent new tools and techniques, which can often be the easier part, the harder part is turning them into products and services that people can and want to use and will pay for. The hardest job of all is creating disruptive innovation, the kind that can make us abandon old ways of doing and take on new ones, such as the washing machine and the car. And this is rare but you wouldn’t know it judging by the constant hyperbolic pronouncements in the media, such as AI is about to displace truck drivers, writers, doctors etc… I realised a small part of me is influenced by the hype, hence my indulgent questions born out of the belief that we live in an ever faster innovation era. But the bigger part of me knows we don’t. I’ve wondered how accurate my thinking is.

As Vaclav Smil pointed out in Invention And Innovation: A Brief History Of Hype and Failure, a detailed study of innovation across American industries from 1840 to 2010 conducted by four American economists shows there is no indication of ever-faster inventions as far as the most fundamental human activities are concerned. What’s more, “the flow of fundamental and enormously successful inventions that have created modern civilization during the past 150 years has been accompanied by a frustrating lack of progress in many key areas” (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 11). To this point, he summarises what breakthrough innovations have taken place and their timing across several industries: “Breakthrough patents in the furniture, textiles, and apparel industries, in transportation equipment, machinery manufacturing, metal manufacturing, wood, paper, and printing, and in construction all peaked before 1900. Mining and extraction, the coal and petroleum industries, mineral processing, electrical equipment production, and plastics and rubber products had their innovative waves and peaks before 1950, and the only industrial sectors with post-1970 peaks have been agriculture and food (the wave dominated by genetically modified organisms), medical equipment (from MRI and CT scanners to robotic surgical tools), and, of course, computers and electronic products.” (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 169).

Vaclav Smil

It is true that with computers and electronics we have seen rapid advances thanks to the exponential growth of microprocessor capabilities, however, this is an exception, not the norm dominating the recent waves of innovations. We are starting to witness slower progress in this area. For example, the growth of the best processor performance has slowed from 52 percent a year between 1986 and 2003 to 23 percent a year between 2003 and 2011 and eventually to less than 4% between 2015 and 2018 (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 164). 4 percent growth is closer to the exponential growth of 2 percent typically seen in other industrial areas, argues Prof. Smil. For example, large steam turbines that generate most of the world’s electricity have improved in efficiency at an average of 1.5% yearly in the past hundred years; steel production efficiency has delivered annual decline in energy use by average of 2% during the past seventy years; And increase in battery energy density since 1900 corresponds to annual exponential growth of 2% (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 166).

Innovation as a social construct

Another very important point Prof. Smil makes in his book, that is often overlooked, is that an innovation’s success or failure is a consequence of social choices. For example, I often hear people talk about AI like it is an elusive independent powerful force that will quell us poor humans. But it is a tool that is being created by humans so how it is used can also be determined by us. To expand on this point, in the book he examines some key inventions from the last 150 years. He groups them in three categories: Inventions that turned from welcomed to undesirable–leaded gasoline, DDT and chlorofluorocarbons; Inventions that were expected to dominate but do not–airships, nuclear fission and supersonic flight; Inventions that we keep waiting for–travel inside a vacuum pod (Hyperloop), nitrogen-fixing cereals, and controlled nuclear fusion. For me an even better example of this point is to be found in the final part of this book where he addresses the question of what innovations we need the most. 

He picked two areas where innovation is most needed. The elimination of cancer and decarbonization–the transition from fossil fuels to energies whose production and conversions do not emit carbon dioxide and methane, the two leading greenhouse gases implicated in anthropogenic global warming. Though they are two very different challenges, he believes that they are similar in the level of complexity. Furthermore, the goal to reduce the toll of cancer in modern society has half a century of a focused, well-supported inventive quest that is comparable (though qualitatively and quantitatively very different) in the magnitude of the inventive tasks required to tackle the unfolding process of decarbonization.  

President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971 with the launch of many government sponsored programs with the goal of eliminating it. Other presidents have continued the focus on cancer: President Obama spoke about finding “a cure for cancer in our time”, while President Biden proclaimed “Cancer Moonshot to end cancer as we know it,” but with a more realistic goal of reducing cancer death rate by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years, and Improving the Experience of Living with and Surviving Cancer.”(Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 173-5). Scientists and physicians knew that what was required to meet this challenge was substantial advances in basic scientific understanding of carcinogenesis, heritability, and disease progression. The most important advances began with the discovery of the first oncogenes (cancer-causing genes), the most commonly mutated gene in human cancer, and the approval of tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen drug to treat breast cancer, during the 1970s.  In 1984 a new oncogene associated with the more aggressive forms of breast cancer as well as the link between human papillomavirus and cervical cancer were discovered.  A decade later came the cloning of tumour suppressor genes to fight breast and ovarian cancer, and during the late 1990s the FDA approved the first monoclonal antibodies. The first vaccines against human papillomavirus were introduced in 2006 and 2009, and in 2010 came the first human cancer treatment vaccine using a patient’s own immune system to limit metastatic cancer. After 2010 came new monoclonal antibodies to treat advanced melanoma, breast cancer, and various solid tumours, and the first personalised treatment (removing a patient’s specific cells, genetically altering them, and then infusing them back to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells) for one type of leukaemia  (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 174). What was the impact on cancer? 

The mortality rate of cancer kept rising until 1991 when it reached 215 per 100,000 population. After falling since 1991, the overall cancer mortality in 1999 was the same as in 1975, but then, finally, came a period of steady reductions. Between 1999 and 2019 the American age-adjusted cancer death rate dropped by 27 percent, from about 201 to about 156 deaths per 100,000 people (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 174). These advances were accompanied by widespread screening and early diagnoses which have helped increase the 5 year survival rate since the1970s: most impressively, from 47 to 74 percent for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, from 75 to 91 percent for breast cancer, and from 82 to 94 percent for melanoma (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 174). Nevertheless, results in other types of cancer have been less impressive. Despite the declining rate of smoking, lung cancer remains the leading malignancy (even among females it is about 45 percent more common than breast cancer), and its 5 year survival rate rose from 12 percent to only 20 percent (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 175).

The next United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP28 will take place in November of this year. It will be the 28th conference of its kind since it was launched in 1992. Government officials from 196 countries will meet to discuss, and negotiate strategies for decarbonization in order to get to net zero by the end of 21st century and reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 as per the Paris Agreement of 2015. At the same time many companies have also made pledges to support this agreement. How are we doing with meeting these goals?  According to a 2022 UN report, countries that pledged to the Paris agreement are on target to increase emissions by 10.6% by 2030. Not surprising since we are still very much dependent on fossil fuels, at 82% of our energy consumption in 2021. Taking lessons from the cancer challenge, things will get worse before they get better. However, what is still greatly lacking with decarbonization is much-expanded basic scientific understanding and ensuing waves of new inventions. An example of an urgently needed invention as Prof. Smil asserts, is mass-scale high-energy-density storage of electricity that would greatly benefit  the unfolding energy transition to carbon-free electricity (dominated by wind, solar photovoltaics, and solar central power) and carbon-free fuels (hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels made from captured CO2) (Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation p. 176).  The magnitude of the job that the high-energy-density battery would have to do is enormous, for example, it would have to be able to power megacities when wind and solar generation are unavailable and replace gasoline and diesel that currently power 1.44 billion vehicles on the road as of 2022. It is improbable to predict when this invention and other new ones needed for decarbonization will materialise. Perhaps then what is most needed is making better use of the inventions and innovations we already have as Vaclav Smil concludes in the book. I was dismayed to discover that as of 2020, 75% of buildings in the European Union (EU) are energy inefficient, “this means that a large part of the energy used goes to waste.” Buildings in the EU collectively are responsible for 40% of its energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. We have the technical know-how and materials to renovate these existing buildings to make them more energy efficient. Doing so could reduce the EU’s total energy consumption by 5-6% and lower carbon dioxide emissions by about 5%. Yet, on average, less than 1% of the national building stock is renovated each year. Another example is electricity generation from fossil fuels is responsible for over 40% of CO2 emissions, even though we have a technology–nuclear power–that generates no CO2 emissions, we are reluctant to use it due to unfounded safety fears.

By the time I finished reading  Invention And Innovation: A Brief History Of Hype and Failure my expectations of innovation were recalibrated. I accepted that I probably won’t get the major upgrade in vacuuming I’m looking for another 16 years or so, which is fine. Afterall it took decades to create the initial invention that bore my current vacuum. I think it is critical to have the awareness and acceptance at society level that innovations are commonly incremental as this could help us make better decisions on where to put our focus and resources to tackle social problems. For example, if we accept that the high-energy-density-storage of electricity we are looking for won’t materialise for a good while, perhaps we would invest more in application of proven innovations such as nuclear energy and building insulation. 

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