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Time for innovation to make sense and for humanity to step on the path to progress once more

There-are-only-two-choices-make-progress-or-make-excuses_Ellen-MikesellOn Monday evening I listened to Etienne Klein’s thought-provoking talk at Les [im]pertinents in Paris: “is there a future for the idea of progress?” A physicist and philosopher of science, Klein is a strong advocate of the role of science as an engine of innovation but observes that in our so-called post-modern society the link between science/innovation on the one hand and human progress on the other hand appears to be increasingly tenuous, if not severed, in the minds of people. How did it come to this and how can we retake our future in our own hands?

How did it come to this?

Arguably, La Belle Epoque in the half-century preceding WWI was the height of the Modern Age. Also a strong proponent of innovation and a relentless optimist, Marc Giget regularly reminds his audiences at Les Mardis de l’Innovation conferences that most of the wonderful buildings that were erected for Universal Exhibitions were destroyed immediately after. In the second half of the 19th century, 5 out of 13 Universal Exhibitions took place in Paris. Apart from a handful of iconic buildings such as the Grand Palais or the Eiffel Tower, very little remains of this succession of exhibitions. Why? Because such was the belief in the idea of progress that people were absolutely certain that 10 years down the line another exhibition would take place in another even more grandiose and modern set of buildings. Even the Eiffel Tower narrowly escaped destruction following this logic. With the second Industrial Revolution in full swing offering the perspective of machines replacing toiling, with medical science making breakthrough discoveries such as vaccination, a better future was in sight. Science breakthroughs and technology innovations were therefore seen as progress towards such a better future. It all came to an abrupt end with the catastrophes of WWI and II. It is not that science and technology stalled at any time in the 20th century, even during its darkest hours; it is only that people stopped believing that they would be leading to a better future.

Since then, and particularly in the last few decades, science and technology have continued to advance at an amazing pace. But in the absence of a compelling and sharedvision of a better future, scientific and technological advances are seen as steps into the unknown rather than steps in the right direction. They become therefore a source of anxiety rather than hope. Even the best of them such as disease cures are seen as a short term fix of the present ills of humanity rather than a milestone on the way towards a disease-free future.

How can we retake our future in our own hands?

A lot of people, including at the forefront of science advancement, will argue that disciplines have become too complex and change has become too rapid to let us set a vision of the future. I beg to differ. Using the analogy with T.S. Kuhn’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions (see Science paradigm-shifts for dummies) I’d contend that we simply find ourselves at the end of a paradigm. As is usually the case in such periods, various theories are competing to become the new paradigm: some will argue that Big Data or the Internet of Everything is the answer, others that Social Innovation or the Sharing Economy is the answer, others yet that the Circular Economy or Renewable Energy is the answer. The fact that none of them sounds compelling enough does not mean that a compelling one will not eventually emerge. In fact, all these theories may well be the pieces of a larger puzzle. Indeed one of the key characteristics of a new paradigm is its unifying power: it draws different bits of theories into a unified framework where each piece needs the other to make sense. For instance, we could envision a world where the internet of everything enables the sharing of data to such an extent that people can meet their needs by utilizing pooled equipment such as vehicles, washing machines or golf clubs on a usership rather than ownership basis, thereby leading to a massive step-change in energy-efficiency. A new paradigm needs to pull scientific and technological advances together with behaviour and mindset changes in order to paint a picture of a frugal world, where frugal does not mean living on a shoe-string but meeting people’s needs on a zero-waste basis.

We can step out of our seemingly random and disjointed innovation islets, and step on the path to progress once more. All it takes is the humility to share our piece of innovation without pretending it is the silver bullet, the openness to understand what pieces others have to offer, and the will to explore how the pieces could fit together.

 

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