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Is Innovation Over?

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Late last year, the Northwestern social scientist Robert Gordon penned a provocative op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that touched on the very issues we cover here at Change Reaction, especially now, during National Geographic’s 125th anniversary year of exploration. His thesis was simple: In a world that has already invented ways to regulate indoor temperature, grow food on large scale and transport ourselves across large distances, what’s left to innovate? We’ve already gotten all the low-hanging fruit, so the innovations of the next few decades will be incremental, rather than game changing.

Gordon makes some sense. No one can invent the light bulb again. We can’t re-figure out how to produce electricity. But it’s not hard to see comparisons between Gordon and that famous oft-repeated quote from Charles Duell, the U.S. Patent Commission in 1901. “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” he purportedly said—a laughable assertion to anyone who lived through industrial plumbing, air travel, air conditioning and wireless telecommunications. It turns out Duell didn’t actually utter those words (more later on what he did say), but the sentiment appears to live on in Gordon.

Sure, there’s no doubt that modern technologies like air conditioning, flood control and factory farming have solved some of the biggest causes of discomfort over human history. But that’s the point. Sitting in our climate controlled high-speed cars with our bellies full, we’ve figured out the big stuff—and hopefully soon, accessible to everyone on the planet. Now it’s on to the loftier, more ambitious pursuits.

Think about all the challenges yet to be solved. Imagine a future without car traffic, and significantly faster travel speeds around the world? What about interstellar travel between planets, a far-flung idea that, contrary to beliefs even ten years ago, isn’t quite as far flung anymore.  Or new food and energy producing methods that can reach every needy person everywhere? These ideas are puzzles that some very serious companies and innovators are pursuing. There are trillions of dollars waiting for the people who revolutionize these ideas, a significantly higher incentive than, say, Edison had to imagine a light bulb.

In 2008, I visited CERN, the nuclear research lab in Geneva that recently discovered evidence of the Higgs Boson, a new particle. The Higgs could be the biggest advance since the discovery of the electron in the 1890s, one physicist told me, imagining ways modern physics could continue to revolutionize the world. He also showed me something else: the web, which was initially developed at CERN and now, well, helped deliver this article to your eyes. Imagine if someone in the 1970s claimed that our information-sharing networks had already reached full capacity.

It’s clear Gordon thinks that the days of old-school, zany inventors are likely over. But the evidence points to the exact opposite. With decentralized learning, immediate global communications, and rapid prototyping available through things like 3D printers it almost seems more likely than ever that big changes will come from surprising places. As the means of production become more accessible to anyone with an internet connection, a major discovery appears more likely to come from some guy’s garage in Vietnam (who has access to disposable income for the first time in his family’s history) than some cash-strapped university in California. Just because Robert Gordon sees a slowing down of a need for innovation, doesn’t mean that the impoverished people of the world, or women who are newcomers to the invention and innovation game, won’t have their own new demands.

They certainly will. And innovators centuries back have recognized that same dawn of large advances constantly on the horizon. Which brings us back to Charles Duell, the late patent chief misquoted for more than 11 decades. What he actually said in 1902 was, “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness.” Then he listed off a host of human advances—from “cooling devices for houses” to wind, sun and waves being “completely harnessed”—yet to come. He went on: “I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold” Quite a humbling way to think about the future.