There is a ‘meme’ circulating these days that we (primarily the US) are in a time where the pace of innovation is slowing and the innovations that are happening are somehow not as significant as ones that have occurred in the past. The recent article by Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal claiming that ‘We’re Out of Big Ideas’ is part of this meme and has been getting a tremendous amount of attention. This article is part of the push-back.
There seems to be two opposing views on the state of invention, innovation, entrepreneurship and R&D (four related but definitely not equivalent activities) today.
- Our best days are behind us. We are not making the investments necessary to create the inventions and foster the startups that created things like the automobile, the internet, the cell phone etc.
- We are just beginning to enter a new era of unimaginable transformations in which we can’t even begin to imagine how our lives will be changed.
Like any situation in which two diametrically opposed poles are being postulated, the truth is somewhere in between and contains elements of both perspectives. Yes, we (the US especially) are underinvesting in basic R&D. Yes, the pace of startup formation is slowing down (for now) and it is difficult to get things from the lab to the market. Yes, productivity growth has slowed and we have not seen productivity benefits from many of our newest inventions (yet).
But it is also difficult to argue that technologies like CRISPR, Artificial Intelligence, and 3D-printing won’t dramatically change our biological, our virtual and our physical world in the future. Perhaps the impact of the automobile on society was a one-time event in changing our collective experience of mobility. But it likely was not.
The truth is we will not know or understand the dramatic transformations that we will be going through until we can look back on them. History has shown that those who bet against these transformations are inevitably proven wrong and it probably will be the same this time as well.