The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Innovation We Need

Investors and the government are ignoring important dark corners of our economy where improvement is simple and cheap. “Imagine a cleaner, more efficient alternative to the internal combustion engine”, writes Washington Post columnist Vivek Wadhwa. He continues:

Unlike battery-powered-car start-ups and solar- and wind-power companies, the internal combustion engine has been almost entirely ignored by venture capitalists. This has remained true even while gas floats above $3 per gallon. Over the past 50 years, innovation to improve fuel economy has only occurred when the government has called for it. In the same period that solar- and wind-power companies have pulled in billions in venture capital and government loans, automotive transportation start-ups focused on internal combustion engines have received little attention or financing.

Why are millions of taxpayers’ dollars going to poorly conceived companies like Solyndra and Evergreen Solar when the economy is filled with innovation “black holes” – sections of the economy that can be easily and profitably improved, and better for the environment too?

Writes Wadhwa,

Bridges and highways are crumbling. So where are the start-ups that could help build bridges or bring to market road materials that are cheaper or more durable?

The general message is clear. Outside of computers, software and a select group of sexy technologies, innovation is almost entirely absent. What’s more, in many of these sectors huge leaps of innovation are not that hard to achieve.

One example:

The winner [of the Oil Cleanup X Challenge] Elastec/American Marine, utilized a spinning, grooved wheel to pull an astonishing 89.5 percent of spilled oil from the testing ground. The device collected oil at nearly 5,000 gallons per minute — fast enough to make a near-complete recovery of spills a real possibility…[Elastec/American Marine] took less than six months to build a technology six times more efficient and far cheaper to operate than existing technologies.

There are opportunities out there for success like this; not all the jobs of the future need to reinvent the wheel. Changing how our world works takes small as well as large leaps. Improving existing technology and infrastructure to be more efficient and clean should be more of a priority than having more solar panel companies than China.

Offering prizes and bounties for innovations is one way to promote technological breakthroughs.  Engineers and inventors can often address a specific challenge — and find the funding for their research — when there is a clear challenge and a reasonable chance at winning a prize.

Schools can do more to promote the idea that inventors and innovators are the great benefactors of humanity; the agronomist who makes agriculture more productive does more to alleviate poverty than the charismatic activist and political agitator.  George Washington Carver did more to improve the lives of more African Americans than Harriet Tubman and Thomas Edison helped more working people live richer, more dignified lives than the politicians and labor leaders so zealously celebrated by Howard Zinn.    Those responsible for inventions yet to come that make energy generation, storage and transmission more efficient will do more to protect the environment than all the envelope stuffers and door knockers who ever worked for Greenpeace.

This is all true — but many well intentioned and idealistic students leave school in American thinking just the opposite.  Worse, they are never encouraged to get the skills or study the subjects that could prepare them to innovate and tinker and make the world a better place. We need to recover America’s culture of innovation; this is the foundation of our prosperity and if we lose it we will lose much else besides.

Published on October 25, 2011 11:18 am
  • Richard F. Miller

    Dr. Mead, as you may be aware, venture capitalists are supine in creating innovations; indeed, other than innovative financing structures, there are few actual innovations that originate in the glass towers of Manhattan or Boston.

    Instead, money flows are driven by innovators–scientists, engineers, or Thomas Edison-type geniuses with little formal education but awesome minds who first conceive, create a prototype (maybe) and then market to the VCs.

    Thus, if the country lacks applied genius in developing newer, cheaper paving materials, or bridge structures, “Wall Street” is the last place to look for it. Instead, start asking questions of schools of engineering, architecture, or higher ed in chemistry.

    Here’s a suggestion–revive the old system of competition for government contracts, and add cash rewards. (This helped establish the U.S. as a great power in railroad construction and connecting the CONUS by aviation.)

    Thus, one way to get cheaper, more stable, easier to install and less toxic materials for road reconstruction is for Uncle Sam to offer a prize of, say, $10 million (or whatever), publish a RFP and invite private sector proposals. (Just for fun, look into the history of the 1911 Government Model Colt–nimble government “intervention” at its best.)

    This system is still used in some military contracts. Why it can’t be expanded to more civilian applications is beyond me. I guess crony capitalism pays better each November.

  • Kenny

    “Schools can do more to promote the idea that inventors and innovators are the great benefactors of humanity; the agronomist who makes agriculture more productive does more to alleviate poverty than the charismatic activist and political agitator.”

    True, and it is also true that things would be a lot better if the government schools devoted more effort in teaching the Three R instread of brainwashing the kiddies in socialism and a need to look to government for all their needs.

  • Noah

    “Changing how our world works takes small as well as large leaps.”

    Ah, yes, but this is not exciting, not sexy. Hollywood gives us heroic tales of Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) and Malcolm X (Denzel Washington); they don’t want to celebrate evil, boring white guy capitalists who, wouldn’t you know, get ^%#$* done in the real world.

  • Noah

    Speaking of prizes for innovation, how about some serious dough for inventing mechanical farm implements so we can forego the use of immigrant labor?

  • Joel Trammell

    The reason money flows to the information technology space is that it is relatively easy to commercialize products in these areas because of the limited government regulation and low liability exposure. A new bridge material would have to jump through so many government hoops and would have so much potential liability that it is hard to find funding in areas that have heavy government regulation and approval.

  • David Wollstadt

    The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center has developed a “Bridge-in-a-Backpack” utilizing composite arch tubes that act as reinforcement and formwork for cast-in-place concrete. Short- to medium-span bridges can be built quickly and inexpensively using this new technology.

  • Stephen

    Well said, nor can it be said often enough. One name epitomizes your point: Norman Borlaug.

  • http://accordingtosaintonge.wordpress.com/ Stephen St. Onge

    The reason there is no investment in innovative road and bridge technology is that the govt. actively hates the idea. Despite all the talk, the purpose of road building and repair is to employ union members and politically connected contractors, and to pay them a lot. Websearch ‘Davis-Bacon’.

    I’m surprised I need to point this out.

  • Kris

    What?! You would have us compete against each other for a chance at filthy lucre? What are you, some kind of capitalist?

  • David Billington

    Professor Mead,

    “Schools can do more to promote the idea that inventors and innovators are the great benefactors of humanity.”

    They’re not the only benefactors but they could have a stronger place in the curriculum. However, the place to teach about innovators may be in high school math and science classes, where their ideas could be explained.

    What we need is understanding and not just recognition of important innovators and their work. By studying the actual thought of innovators, younger people may see more clearly how to be innovative themselves.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    “Schools can do more to promote the idea that inventors and innovators are the great benefactors of humanity; the agronomist who makes agriculture more productive does more to alleviate poverty than the charismatic activist and political agitator. George Washington Carver did more to improve the lives of more African Americans than Harriet Tubman and Thomas Edison helped more working people live richer, more dignified lives than the politicians and labor leaders so zealously celebrated by Howard Zinn. Those responsible for inventions yet to come that make energy generation, storage and transmission more efficient will do more to protect the environment than all the envelope stuffers and door knockers who ever worked for Greenpeace.”

    Meanwhile, if we can just get our inventions and innovations to start serving live, created human beings ALMOST as well as they presently serve the glorious things we humans create: – tasks, procedures, systems, projects, organizations, ideas. And btw, didn’t we English-speaking countries once do a pretty tolerable job of just that – designing things with PEOPLE in mind, as distinct from re-designing and -configuring people with systems and technologies in mind? I mean, say, during roughly the first two-thirds of the 20th century? (Cf. Peter Thiel, “The End of the Future,” http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/278758/end-future-peter-thiel)? Or did technology and technical innovation simply stand still through neglect during that period, while we confined ourselves to exploring some obscure, intangible human dimension of things?

    Extrapolating from what I understand of Thiel’s article, I’m moved to wonder: When we idolize and fetishize the things we create, do we, at least as often as not, get the opposite results of what we intended? When we as a culture obsess over technical innovation (as it seems to me we’ve been doing for roughly the past 15-20 years), do we get more of the kind that generates a solid economic foundation, or less, than we did in previous decades whose spirit or emphasis was different?

    And thanks to #1 for some illuminating – and, IMO, sadly neglected – insights and reminders.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Also in this connection, a very rewarding piece in “Big Think”, http://bigthink.com/ideas/40649?page=2, in which author Jason Gots writes:

    “[Over-reliance on] Math’s not to blame [for the financial collapse of 1998], but a religious reverence for mathematical objectivity might be. We are susceptible to a modern-day form of idol worship whereby the sophistication of our technology and data-crunching power sometimes dazzles us into forgetting that these are human creations, designed by people, for people. And when they are applied to human problems, we cannot afford to treat them as perfect, alien entities whose wisdom exceeds our own.”