Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure

Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure
by Vaclav Smil

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2023
232 pp., illus. 28 B&W. Trade, $ 24.95
ISBN: 9780262048057.

Reviewed by: 
Enzo Ferrara
May 2023

Vaclav Smil, whose research spans the fields of energy, environment, and technical innovation, is professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and Member of the Order of Canada. All of his books attract wide interest. Whatever the viewpoint, authoritativeness is extensively acknowledged to this author, whose writings – more than 40 books and about 500 papers – offer valuable information in terms of data, interconnections, and historical perspective on such fundamental issues correlating technology, resources, and population change that anyone can use as references for their studies, aiming at either scientific or humanistic approaches.

In 2022, while presenting his previous issued book How the world really works (Penguin 2022) Smil claimed he is neither a pessimist nor an optimist about the contemporary world. He defined himself just “a scientist trying to explain how does a global system stand on, in which to get a chicken to the table it takes as much energy as half a bottle of crude oil”. In fact, ranging among the foremost experts in technological and environmental sciences, Smil describes with extraordinary clarity the complex mechanisms that enable our well-being addressing possible ways to maintain it available in the future, too.

It is the case also of his last title: Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure, which challenges the full of pride representations of human ingenuity through the analysis of major technological developments reflecting the recent history of human inventions, spanning about the last two centuries, and their consequent breakthroughs or busts. Drawing on his vast breadth of scientific and historical knowledge, accompanied by photographs, schemes and illustrations, Smil tackles the issue of dismantling homologated thoughts about innovation as an evergreen and unconditional engine of progress. On the contrary, he reminds the reader how many failures, regrets and disasters have meantime marked the paths of modernity because of the counterproductive effects of technology.

Chapter 1 “Inventions and innovations. A long history and modern fascination” introduces the somewhat fascinating and long history of innovation concepts. Soon Smil explains the difference between invention – an idea about a new technological device with more or less space for potential applications – and innovation – a concept including the wide diffusion and use of technological inventions. Then, all along the book, he looks not merely at inventions that resulted in innovation breakthrough, but also analyses in depth the many that failed to dominate as promised, along with those that turned disastrous, like or the use of leaded gasoline, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). The latter are described in Chapter 2: “Inventions that turned from welcome to undesirable”, with citations of Rachel Carson – whose book Silent Spring (1962) turned the public aware about the risks of DDT, – and early XX century outlines of patent applications for leaded gasoline use in cars, and the nascent domestic refrigerators using toxic sulfur dioxide, then replaced by CFCs.

In Chapter 3, discussing “Invention that were to dominate – and do not”, Smil warns that even if we are able to go quite far along the invention-development-application trajectory, chasing practical applications of new devices, we may the same never get anything real to deploy. On the other hand, even worse, although we are happy for having succeeded by introducing an invention, nevertheless, its future may be marked by counterintuitive outcomes: scarcity, dissatisfaction, demise, or worst of all unexpected or undervalued outright harm. Again, three prominent examples are offered of unfulfilled early hopes: airship (i.e. lighter than air structures as hot air balloons and dirigibles); nuclear fission developed to generate clean, cheap and affordable electricity; and, supersonic (i.e. faster than sound speed 1.235 km/h) flight for transportation. If the Hindenburg accident – occurred on May 6th 1937, when a German dirigible failed landing in Lakehurst (NJ, US), provoking 35 dead among 97 passengers – marked the end of airship traveling, substituted by heavier-than-air aircrafts, nuclear fission and supersonic flight still stand as questionable solutions, although related more with nuclear and aero-spatial armaments than to answer human needs. Nevertheless, their costs, in terms of natural and economic resources spent to maintain the existing plants or to sustain research aiming at future practical development of electro-nuclear plants and supersonic passengers fleets, have sky-rocketed while the risks linked to their wide use remain clear and unsoundly on the background.

Eventually, and most important, in Chapter 4 Smil tackles those “Inventions that we keep waiting for” and that would indeed be highly beneficial if realized. The author offers here a ‘wish list’ of inventions that we most urgently need to confront the stunning challenges of the XXI century. The examples here refer to traveling in vacuum (Hyperloop), developing genetically modified nitrogen-fixing cereals, and attaining nuclear fusion. Smil develops his reasoning and explains why – although expectations were and remain incredibly high for these futuristic ideas – all are affected by inherent vices impeding them to be implemented, from maintaining vacuum in kilometers long tunnels, to dosing native nitrogen production through nitrogenase root-bacteria, to achieving on the Earth such high temperatures and pressures as on the Sun surface. Furthermore, counterproductive effects are to be expected as the leakage of huge amount of nitro-compounds into the environment, provoking waters eutrophication, or the use of such enormous amounts of energy to create magnetic fields having strength enough to grant the containment of hydrogen isotopes in the plasma state.

The final passages of Smil are on the role technology should assume to benefit its master humans. As Samuel Beckett metaphorically warned in Waiting for Godot, before receiving any benefit from technology we have first to reduce the actually dominating selfish and callous attitudes of the modern magnificent and progressive visions and provide larger space for compassion. Thus, instead of waiting for the next Godot-like technological leap to solve its worries, humanity needs to move into a more realistic perspective of what is sustainable and what is not in terms of technological expectations as Smil suggests in Chapter 5 devoted to “Techno-optimism, exaggerations, and realistic expectations”. Smil reminds the costs and consumes involved with the society we live in (e.g. 370 million tons of plastic per year, 150 million tons of ammonia, 1.8 billion tons of steel and 4.5 billion tons of cement). One certainty is unshakable for the author: to tackle any problem efficiently, we need to know the facts and start with data accompanied by the exploration of their underlining principles and the macro-systems within which they emerge. Such exploration could move us to be either surprised, indignant, or confident but the need remains to be continuously and timely informed and aware.

This book is an educative overview of the overpromises that too frequently accompany claims about technology, from new cures for diseases to AI, about which the author is definitely impatient. “Both the acknowledgments of reality – Smil writes – and the willingness to learn, even modestly, from past failures and cautionary experience seem to find less and less acceptance in modern societies where masses of scientifically illiterate, and often surprisingly innumerate, citizens are exposed daily not just to overenthusiastically shared reports of potential breakthroughs but often to vastly exaggerated claims regarding new inventions” (p. 152). Characterizing this state of affairs as living in a ‘post factual society’ is, unfortunately not exaggerate. That is why we must better align our expectations with real needs, available resources, and their equal distribution, refusing the current parlance that frequently refers to ‘disruptive’ hi-tech shifts ready to ‘transform’ modern societies without taking into account neither their sustainability nor their worldwide availability and fairness.