Reports of a post-growth era have been vastly exagerated
In Mark Twain style we could claim that reports of the advent of a post-growth world have been vastly exagerated. In fact while we almost certainly find ourselves at the end of the long economic cycle that started with the industrial revolution, we might well be on the eve of a new century long growth cycle.
The industrial revolution harnessed mechanical power to free-up or leverage human physical power. In production or transport, tasks that would have otherwise taken muscle and time could be done with increasing effectiveness through people operating machines. The lever of mechanical power enabled economies to tap into a massive productivity reservoir, unleashing two centuries of phenomenal growth. Today,
the digital revolution harnesses computing and the connecting power of the internet to free-up or leverage human mental power. Tasks that used to require a lot of mental space or long attention span can now be commissioned in a few clicks and delegated to self-operating machines.
Car transportation illustrates the point. From walking to driving a car, a lot of human physical energy and time has been saved. From driving a car to using a driverless car, a lot of human mental space and capacity can be freed up. Arguably, it can already be freed up by having a chauffeur, but this is only freeing up one’s mental space by occupying another’s.
In J’Innove Donc Je Suis (I Innovate Therefore I Am, published in French) contributor Michèle Dubonneuil describes this emerging sector as quaternary, signalling that it represents a more fundamental shift that a simple extension of the tertiary sector. In domestic services for instance, the classic tertiary sector approach consists in renting the time of a person to execute a task that the customer do not want to do, such as house cleaning, or cannot do themselves, such as nursing. Productivity gains are to be found in specialization (the service provider is usually more skilled or more agile than the customer at performing the task) but are eventually limited by the provider’s time availability. In a quaternary sector approach, low-qualification tasks such as cleaning can be provided by robots, while high-qualification tasks such as nursing can be provided by a combination of connected objects and distributed remote human expertise, which not only cuts the cost of executing the task but also accelerates the delivery to the customer. Mental power is of course required to design the objects and protocoles through which the solution is going to be delivered. But once this has been done, the solution can be delivered again and again to multiple customers with minimal extra mental power.
Therefore, the design and provision of solutions through connected smart objects opens up a whole new reservoir of progress and productivity, which, combined together, could well kick-start a new growth era.