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?
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.
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.