Still An Innovation Nation

Car_versus_horse

Yesterday, according to the Mayan calendar, we were to have seen the end of the world. Today professors like Robert J. Gordon in The Wall Street Journal (22-23 December 2012) unfortunately continue to spread doom and gloom.

According to Gordon, “for more than a century, the U.S. economy grew robustly thanks to big inventions; those days are gone.”

Gordon seems to think predominantly from 20/20 hindsight, seeing the innovations of the past — such as the electric light bulb, running water and the jet airplane — as the last major vestiges possible of human advancement.

As Gordon states: “Only once would transport speeds be increased from the horse (6 miles per hour) to the Boeing 707 (550 mph).  Only once could our houses be replaced by running water and indoor plumbing. Only once could indoor temperatures, thanks to central heating and air conditioning, be converted from cold in winter and hot in summer to a uniform year-round climate of 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Gordon’s pessimism is bad enough (“The future of American economic growth is dismal”) but his arrogance is even worse.

How sad that he cannot see past our momentary troubles and imagine better, greater things to come.

– Is 707 miles per hour really the fastest that humans can travel? I guess Gordon hasn’t been following the land speed record in Scientific American (5 November 2012) that has an English project pushing the 1,000 mph barrier and already projecting hitting 1,600 mph or Virgin Galactic (just the beginning of our space journeys) reaching more than 4 times the speed of sound (>3,000 mph!).

– Is indoor plumbing really the last great innovation when it comes to water? Please don’t tell that to almost a billion people worldwide who live without potable water. However, thanks to innovators such as Vestergaard-Frandsen, whose Lifestraw water purification tools “removes 99.9999% of bacteria through a superfine filtration process” for only about $6 each (Mashable), many others may soon have access to safe drinking water.

– Is central air is the end of the temperature innovation cycle?–You’ve got to be kidding me. In the context of global warming and the resulting “storms and other (weather) extremes,” there are considerable challenges ahead of us to be met. Someone ought to tell Mr. Gordon that sustainable energies are coming online (solar, wind, wave, and geothermal) that can help stem global greenhouse gases thought to be a major cause. In fact, whole new “green” high-tech cities like Masdar City are being developed to operate with low environmental footprints.

Gordon may think all major innovations have arrived, and probably thought the same before the Internet and smartphone were created.

In his op-ed, Gordon calls on skeptics to “rebut” his innovative idea that robust innovation is over. But perhaps he is actually asking them for help. Because such pessimism and small thinking are a prison of his own making. Unfortunately, he is professionally considered an “educator.” But it’s lessons like this that our young people – facing one of the most economically challenging times in modern history – can do without. 😉

(Source Photo: here with attribution to Paul Townsend)

>A House for The People

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(Source for graphic: The $300 House)

National Geographic (January 2011) reports that one out of every seven people—or 1 billion people—in this world lives in slums.

 

Forbes (11 June 2007) predicts “By 2030, an estimated 5 billion of the world’s 8.1 billion people will live in cities. About 2 billion of them will live in slums, primarily in Africa and Asia, lacking access to clean drinking water and toilets, surrounded by desperation and crime.”

 

Harvard Business Review (January-February 2011) shares an innovative idea by Vijay Govindarajan to design and mass-produce houses for the poor for $300! Moreover, these units would include “basic modern services such as running water and electricity…[and] create shared access to computers, cell phones, televisions, water filters, solar panels, and clean-burning stoves.”

 

The breakthrough idea of the $300 high-tech house is that this is not something governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or charities would develop and deploy, but rather one that is a challenge for commercial interests who can take lead on creating mass scale, “ultra low cost, high value housing…as a mega opportunity, with billions in profit at stake.”

 

While I understand that the profit motive is very compelling and efficient in getting results, I would suggest that when it comes to helping the poor and downtrodden that we need to temper this as a driving factor, and let our humanity and conscience kick in as well. In other words, sure make a profit, but by G-d have a heart.

 

With The $300 House, aside from the notion of truly helping people—en masse—and making a genuine difference with moving them from slum houses to homes is the concept of leapfrogging them in their technology.Think about it:

 

Solar power

Walter filtration

(Even) Tablet PCs

 

This reminds me of the One Laptop Per Child initiative of 2005 that sought to put $100 laptops in the hands of hundreds of millions of disadvantaged schoolchildren to advance their educational opportunities.It expands and augments it to make the change impactful to people’s lives on the ground today in terms of how people are able to care for themselves and their families, so that they can get to a brighter tomorrow and put that education to work.

 

While we may never be able to fully eradicate poverty, we can certainly significantly raise the status of living for the masses that need help through commercial opportunities, technological proliferation, and of course, through a charitable heart.

>Turning the Tables on Terrorists

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Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md) said that an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)—“it would bring down the whole [electrical] grid and cost between $1 trillion to $2 trillion” to repair with full recovery taking up to 10 years!

“It sounds like a science-fiction disaster: A nuclear weapon is detonated miles above the Earth’s atmosphere and knocks out power from New York City to Chicago for weeks, maybe months. Experts and lawmakers are increasing warning that terrorists or enemy nation state could wage that exact type of attack, idling electricity grids and disrupting everything from communications networks to military defenses…such an attack would halt banking, transportation, food, water, and emergency services and might result in the defeat of our military forces.” (Federal Times—September 21, 2009)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) says “the U.S. is ill-prepared to prevent or recover from an EMP”—they are asking Congress for authority to require power companies to take protective steps to build metal shields around sensitive computer equipment.

It is imperative for us to protect our critical infrastructure so that we are not vulnerable to the devastating effects of a potential EMP blast. We must think beyond simple guns and bullets and realize that our technological progress is on one hand a great advantage to our society, but on the other hand, can be a huge liability if our technical nerve centers are “taken out”. Our technology is a great strategic advantage for us, but also it is our soft underbelly, and whether, we are surprised by an EMP or some hard-hitting cyber warfare, we are back to the stone age and it will hurt.

It also occurs to me that the same tools terrorists use against others can also be used against them.