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SPIE Professional April 2008

Innovation Age: Where Will It Take the Human Race?

A British thought leader on innovation discusses how rapid scientific innovations of the current Innovation Age will impact our economic and political systems—and the very future of the human race.

By Sir John Chisholm

Darwin conceived of evolution as a steady process of adaptation, but scientific evidence now points to long periods of relative equilibrium punctuated by rapid uptake of evolutionary innovations, sometimes in response to catastrophic natural events.

The massive Toba eruption 70,000 years ago in Indonesia, for instance, 3000 times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens, posed a global challenge to animal and plant species and reduced the human race to possibly no more than 1000 couples in Africa. Necessity appears to have driven our distraught ancestors to adapt to the challenge, probably by developing new and unique capabilities for social interaction. They used the climatic variation of the resulting mini Ice Age to cross the Sahara and spread east and west across the globe.

Today we are all participating in an evolutionary event every bit as dramatic. It is the Innovation Age, and the rapid scientific innovations and adaptations at the heart of it will no doubt have a major impact on our economic ecosystem, the political power balance across the globe, and the very future of the human race.

The current Innovation Age started in Britain at the end of the 18th Century and continues to change human society at a brisk pace. Instantaneous global communication—itself a product of the Innovation Age—has allowed people all over the world to quickly learn what others are doing to resolve common problems and apply their own new ideas and techniques to solve them.

Evolutionary Fits and Starts

Advances in innovation and adaptation usually come in fits and starts. Humankind mastered the art of social coordination we know as civilisation at seven locations independently around the world, the earliest being the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations, both around 3000 BC. That turned hunter-gatherers into people who produced things such as goods and services. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and even the civilisations in the Americas all made some modest and slow progress in organisation and production.

Then everything suddenly took off almost vertically, and it is climbing more steeply now than ever. According to California economist Bradford Delong, in the 2000 years between the start of Roman times and 1800, world GDP had expanded just 100%, but in the 200 years since, it has expanded 30,000%.

Why didn’t it happen sooner? And what were the circumstances that created just the right mixture for this evolutionary change to take place?

According to another economist, William Baumol, it was the coming together in one place and time of three phenomena that had never coexisted before. They were:

  • The rule of law (Entrepreneurs could amass wealth without fear of arbitrary confiscation.)
  • A ferment of scientific discovery (Boyle, Hooke, Newton, etc.)
  • The new concept of liberal economics proposed by Adam Smith

The latter was the most important since Smith saw that wealth was not created by enlightened rulers but by the invisible hand of the market.

Enlightenment “Rules”

The idea that rule of law should stand above the power of the state traces back to Greek times, but mostly it had proved a feeble flame against the strength of the rich and mighty. By the 18th Century, the Protestant and Cromwellian revolutions had delivered a more robust legal framework. And mankind had started to think again.

Although the first glimpses of human beings using the power of their minds to assess observed phenomena and deduce logical conclusions can be traced back to Egypt’s Imhotep in 2500 BC, humans have tended to prefer to believe in God(s) and the teachings of priests. Again, the Greeks were the first to build alternative world models. The Romans had little appetite for such effete pursuits, and the western Christian Church, which had a monolithic approach to truth, regarded all knowledge as deriving from the scriptures. This put back scientific progress in its area by 1000 years. Fortunately, Islam was much more heterogeneous. It saved Greek thought from extinction and contributed important critical commentaries.

The simultaneous rise of nation states and Protestantism broke the power of the Church and ushered in the Age of Enlightenment and a ferment of optimism that new discoveries could be made by applying mind to fact.

Suddenly the world was awash with new and disturbing thinking, some with painful consequences as in the French Revolution, when Adam Smith launched his idea that the state’s best plan was to forget trying to control economic activity but let the market do the job for it.

Market and Social Evolution

The British government was the first to adopt these principles, at least in the British Isles. The new United States of America was fortunate to be born into this tumultuous environment and made the ideal proving ground for this novel evolutionary mutation.

Social evolution works faster than biological evolution because it does not have to wait while the advantaged mutants outbreed their rivals. In social systems, successful strategies are quickly copied. Baumol used this to explain the extraordinary power of innovation. Entrepreneurs innovate not to get rich but to avoid getting poor. Having once experienced the competitive success of innovation, they realise the same can be done to them. So, they must re-innovate to keep ahead.

Innovation thus stirs up an irresistible positive feedback loop in the economic ecosystem, and only skills, resources, and regulation limit it.

The Innovation Age is in full swing and we are all part of it. All over the world, countries realise that skills are the foundation, and people are looking at what others are doing and finding ways to improve on it. Science is one of the key ingredients for novelty, which is perhaps why there is said to be more new science done every year now than in the whole of the history of mankind up to World War II.

Inexorably, the Innovation Age will reshape global power balance. Yes, countries such as the U.S. and U.K. can use advantages of culture and sophisticated industrial architectures to keep in front of the race, but at the speed information diffusion takes place, their frontrunner status will be brief.

Inevitably, countries whose size once led them to dominate world GDP will once again do so. China and then India will overtake the U.S., and Brazil and Russia will be huge players, also.

Of course, the enfranchisement of the whole human race into the Innovation Age will create challenges for the environment, natural resources, energy, and pollution control. Just as the advent of liberal economics was allowed excessive licence due to the power of those benefiting from it before more balanced and sustainable regimes emerged, so the globe will doubtless suffer some deprivation while the Innovation Age and its environmental and macro-political consequences become more balanced.

Wars, politics and natural disasters are not being dis-invented by the Innovation Age. Inequalities coupled with ethnic differences have always been a potent source of conflict, and the Innovation Age is providing far more effective tools for the weak to strike back against the strong.

That is why governments will continue to be vital players as sponsors of innovation for public purposes—whether that is security, health, environmental protection, or basic science. And that is why all of us engaged in innovation are participating in an historic evolutionary development, which, in the next 100 years, will make the world seem as different to us as the civilisation of the pharaohs would have been to our parents.

© Copyright QinetiQ Limited 2008

Globalization And GDP

The spectacular rise in world GDP shows no sign of slowing down and is actually getting steeper. That is no surprise since globalisation is steadily enfranchising all 6 billion people in the world, not just the 500 million or so who have enjoyed free market benefits since World War II.

–Sir John Chisholm

photo of Sir John ChisholmSir John Chisholm
Sir John Chisholm, an engineering graduate of Cambridge University, is chairman of QinetiQ, a leading international defence and security company. Chisholm is a frequent speaker on technology, change management, and innovation. He was invited to speak on the subject of "Innovation and the Wealth of Nations" at this year's SPIE Defense+Security Symposium. Chisholm is widely credited with transforming QinetiQ from a broad collection of research laboratories into a successful ccommercial business.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200804.07

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