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: 
Jan Baetens
August 2023

If this book weren’t so brilliantly written and argued, it would have been the perfect candidate for the most depressive read of the year. It definitely isn’t, although Invention and Innovation is far from being a feel good essay, all the more since the author puts the blame as much on us, readers, consumers, citizens, as on all inventors and inventions whose results are not always proving to do what they were supposed or hoped for to achieve.

Vaclav Smil’s reflection, a highly readable follow-up volume on his best-selling How the World Really Works (Viking, 2022), is in the first place a warning against hypes raised by inventions (that is: tools, machines, materials and new ways of production, operation and management) and, more precisely innovations (that is: “the process of introducing, adopting, ad mastering new materials, products, processes, and ideas”, p. 3), that have proven to be unrealistic, in sometimes surprising and unexpected ways but sometimes also in ways that could and even should have been easy to foresee, but where the hype prevented any form of damage control.

As Smil convincingly argues, more than one innovation failed. In three topical chapters (“inventions that turned from welcome to undesirable”, “inventions that were to dominate –and do not”, and “inventions that we keep waiting for”) he gives a detailed historical overview of three examples of each of them, generally borrowed from the fields of energy production like nuclear fusion, transportation like supersonic travelling, and agriculture like DDT. He also sharply analyzes the reasons of their failure, such as unforeseen consequences, economic dead ends or political and ideological biases. But since Invention and Innovation has already been excellently reviewed in Leonardo, [1] I will not further focus on the presentation of this taxonomy and these examples or the reasons of their unfulfilled expectations, but foreground three more general aspects of Smil’s approach, which I consider a brilliant example of how to write on technological and cultural change for a larger audience (although experts and decision makers should feel even more addressed!). Smil’s book is a plea for rational and realist thinking on these issues, even if readers may feel unsure about having the necessary training and expertise to make clear judgements. Yes, we all want decarbonation, but which general reader or ordinary citizen can claim the necessary knowledge and competence to come to sound conclusions on how to achieve this desirable goal, for instance?

What strikes first, is the fact that Smil takes history very seriously, hence the perhaps amazing emphasis on the chronological ordering of examples that belong to sometimes very different fields and contexts. Time should be a key factor in any serious reflection on invention and innovation. We are used to want everything “right now”, while every novelty is now invariably sold with the promise of immediate and definitive success (everything must be a game changer, signify a paradigm shift, have completely disruptive impact, etc.), and for Smil that “atemporal” or “de-chronologized” attitude is part of the problem. In his writing, chronology becomes a rhetorical device: it shows our unwillingness to learn from the past as well as our eagerness to repeatedly fall prey to always the same mirages, not just those of an instantaneous complete, and final answer to complex problems, but also that of the inevitable as well as permanent acceleration of invention and innovation cycles, as if each new invention or innovation would enable us to speed up even more the rhythm of our problem-solving. Smil dismantles these illusions in three ways. First, obviously, by showing their unkept promises (if not blatant lies). Second, by insisting on the necessity of understanding the larger context and system of which each problem and each solution represent just a tiny part – an awareness that should block any naivety concerning “global” solutions. Third, by challenging the widely shared impression that we have been experiencing since various generations a generalized increase in speed of culture and life – the, indeed, incredibly fast changes in electronics make us blind to the slowness of changes in other fields, if not their complete stand-still (transportation being here a good point in case). History, in other words, is a vital dimension of any reflection on invention and innovation, yet unfortunately it is often lacking. A better historical consciousness could help us better understand not only the difficulties of making and implementing new inventions but also the countless problems caused by our false beliefs and expectations.

This brings us to a second aspect of Smil’s writing: the relationship between, on the one hand, the author’s rational, that is realistic take on human evolution, not just in the biological but also in the social and technological sense of the words (human beings change by adapting to their changing environment, but this environment is now also a manmade one), and, on the other hand, his conviction that invention an innovation are necessary for a better future. Even if his vocabulary and style are anything but activist, Smil is a strongly committed author, as shown in the last chapter of his book where he discusses ideas on “what we need most” to solve urgent human and ecological problems (poverty on the one hand, climate change on the other hand). Yet this commitment is above all a very realist one. Smil challenges and criticizes both believers, those who promise paradise now as well as those who accept the possibility of such heaven on earth, and non-believers, since he claims that we will never find a better future without inventions and innovations. His mapping of a new future thus combines hope and skepticism, a difficult balancing act that has however the advantage of increasing the reader’s responsibility. Smil’s appeal to citizenship is however less determined by a political or ideological program, unless of course one considers “realism” to be the implicit name of such a program, than by the refusal to either prioritize or condemn this or that political system of type of science policy. As soon as one takes into account the broader context, as Smil always invites us to do, the questions that surface can no longer be solved in narrowly political or ideological frameworks.

There is however astonishingly little room for certain concrete manifestations of what Smil considers an equally decisive factor in our thinking on invention and innovation: imagination. Works of imagination, a virtually very useful shield against uncritical techno-optimism, fake news, or ideological biases, are mentioned only once in a while, yet each time they are, their force is undeniable, like in the case of Jonathan Swift’s immortal Struldburggs, an early warning against the nightmare of eternal life without eternal youth (and even eternal youth is not by definition a pleasant perspective) or Bradbury’s short stories of life on Mars, which should be compulsory reading for all those having wild dreams on the “terraformation” of the red planet. One may regret that examples like these are not more systematically used in the author’s purpose to build realistically leaning and technologically educated citizens, for literature and art in general are excellent tools in sharping our capacity of system-oriented and historical thinking. Works of imagination can play a crucial role in raising awareness, provided we succeed in avoiding the sterile dichotomy of credulous techno-optimism and a priori dystopic representations (examples of both abound, obviously). This is then a third and last lesson we can learn from Smil’s work: we may take his realist attitude toward invention and innovation as a springboard for new works of fiction that escape the Scylla of gullibility and the Charybdis of skepticism.


[1] See Leonardo Reviews, May 2023, review by Enzo Ferrara: Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure. Leonardo/ISAST, Arizona State University.