Why the end of innovation is difficult to imagine

Our understanding of the pace of innovation is limited by what we know how to measure


There’s a legitimate sense in which the innovations we see pouring out of Silicon Valley aren’t as creative as those of, say, the 1950s. Photo: Reuters
There’s a legitimate sense in which the innovations we see pouring out of Silicon Valley aren’t as creative as those of, say, the 1950s. Photo: Reuters

Could the innovation that has helped drive human prosperity for centuries finally be petering out? Some worry that the easy discoveries in science and technology have been made, and it will only get harder from here. Is this believable?

The idea seems counterintuitive given the frantic pace of innovation in Silicon Valley, or the steady flow of discoveries in science. Researchers in California, for example, recently discovered a solid material that, even when sitting in direct sunlight, naturally cools itself to about 9 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient temperature. It might point the way to a new wave of technology for cooling.

That said, the nature of innovation does appear to be changing. An analysis of more than 200 years of US patent data, for example, suggests that although it’s not necessarily slowing down, it has become less fundamental and radical.

Looking at codes that represent the array of technologies used in each new patent, researchers found a fascinating historical pattern. For much of the 19th Century, the number of distinct technology codes increased exponentially. Inventors were making completely fundamental discoveries, learning basic chemistry, electricity and thermodynamics. They discovered the conservation of energy, learned to make batteries, and found out that plants were made of cells.

After 1870, the focus of innovation shifted toward finding new ways to combine previous discoveries. The incandescent light bulb, for example, required technologies for generating electricity as well as for making very thin wires and delicate glass bulbs containing inert gases. Growth in the number of technology codes slowed, while flow of new inventions continued.

Since 1970, the prevalence of what the researchers called “broad” innovations—those combining radically different technologies—has declined. Such inventions comprised about 50% of all new patents as of 2010, down from about 70% in the decades following World War II. So there’s a legitimate sense in which the innovations we see pouring out of Silicon Valley aren’t as creative as those of, say, the 1950s.

All of this seems to fit, at least crudely, with idea—suggested by economist Robert Gordon, among others—that the information-technology revolution hasn’t had the same punch as previous episodes associated with plumbing, railroads, electricity or petroleum chemistry. We have harvested the low—hanging fruit, the story goes, and cannot even match our earlier creativity in creating new dishes.

Our understanding of the pace of innovation, however, is limited by what we know how to measure—and in any case says nothing about what might happen in the future. What if innovation is actually headed in a completely new direction? Most of our technology, from petroleum to superconductors to synthetic liver tissue made with 3D printers, has come from influencing and controlling how atoms, molecules or cells interact. An entire realm of possibilities may lie elsewhere, especially in the social world, in learning to manage and expand human interactions.

The social sphere could be where information technology, moving on from the likes of Google and Facebook, may ultimately have its greatest impact. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that we’ve done anything more than scratch the surface of possible kinds of business organization. Or in discovering how technology can aid our collective creativity, help us learn, or enhance our play. Are there technologically enhanced forms of democracy—or other kinds of government we’ve never dreamed of—that would be less prone to the distortions of powerful special interests?

In such matters, we’re as clueless about what might be possible as physical scientists were about electricity and chemistry in 1700. This would suggest that there’s plenty of profound innovation yet to be done. Bloomberg

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