Few books have stuck with me the way Geoffrey West’s Scale (reviewed here last summer) did. I don’t fully buy the book’s argument for the applicability of natural scale laws to human structures such as cities (here’s a much smarter review than mine), but he did put the planet’s projected population in sharp perspective for me: worldwide, 1.5 million people will be moving to cities every _week_ for the next (now) 34 years. West argues, plausibly in my view, that we will need step-function innovations on the order of the Internet to feed, employ, cure, and transport all those people.
There’s a quasi-debate running between several economists and management scholars. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at MIT argue that human organizational structures have lagged, as they historically do, technological development. Robotics per se doesn’t put people out of work; rather, corporate, taxation, labor law, education, and other structures don’t yet create a place for these new machines and humans in a larger, functioning economy. On the other side stands Tyler Cowen of George Mason, who says that we have harvested all the “low-hanging fruit” (his words) and that compared to the 20th century, our era’s record of groundbreaking innovation is thin.
All three views hang together in my mind: we are due for another massively important innovation — including in the “rules of the game,” as it were. Since the iPhone launched the age of mass smartphone use 11 years ago, it’s hard to find truly important ideas: Uber and Airbnb are both about 10 years old, as is blockchain (in which China now leads the world in patent applications ), which has yet to solve a truly important problem. Autonomous vehicles, meanwhile, are looking like less of a near-term bet (as recent news from Waymo illustrates). What am I missing?
Before looking ahead, let’s look back and see where the last few world-changing innovations came from:
-The Internet began at DARPA (in 1969, ARPA) but key components including the World Wide Web came from elsewhere (Europe’s CERN, in the case of the WWW). AT&T famously passed on the contract to build the Internet, because their substantial expertise in the existing circuit switched regime made it clear the technology would never work.
-Malcolm McLean owned a North Carolina trucking company and died worth about $350 million. His innovation? Containerized shipping: in 1956, when he piloted the idea, hand-loading a ship cost $5.86 a ton. Containerization dropped that to 16 cents per ton. “Globalization” and all that implies, including increased standards of living in many locales, rely heavily on his invention.
-Norman Borlaug earned a PhD at the University of Minnesota then spent most of his professional life in Mexico, cross-breeding crops. He has been credited with saving a billion people from starvation and won the Nobel peace prize. His so-called (by others) “green revolution” was critiqued from several angles: input-intensive agriculture made seed, fertilizer, and tractor companies rich and famers indebted. Large-scale farms (including road-building and other infrastructure) destroyed cultural practices and institutions associated with subsistence faming. Pesticides and monoculture have negative long-term environmental effects. All of that is true, but feeding a billion people who most likely would otherwise have starved deserves a healthy dose of credit.
Thus we see an entrepreneur, an individual humanitarian, and large-scale government agencies all making decisive contributions. Absent are corporations: yes, the Toyota Prius is 20 years old, but it has not (yet?) shifted the global auto industry off of fossil fuels. Even pure electric vehicles rely on a power grid that most likely begins with the burning of gas, oil, or coal. The great innovators of the past — GE, HP, IBM, AT&T, Xerox — no longer pack the research punch they once did. Innovations at Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Amazon are heavily tilted to the realm of consumer behavior, in which advanced algorithms are used on the relatively easy task of manipulating purchase and viewing patterns, one person at a time.
What about big Pharma? In an age when economic rationality means $500 Epi-pens and 5,000% price increases on off-patent drugs (see Shkreli, Martin), it’s hard to see the sector as currently constituted solving a capital-B Big human challenge. Meanwhile, as antibiotic-resistant bacteria get tougher to combat with every passing month, it’s not impossible to imagine that penicillin and its offspring may not matter (or matter much) 100 years after the drug’s discovery in 1928. As science cracks the code of the biome, particularly regarding the gut, entirely new modes of treatment may become feasible. If (very broadly speaking) the 19th century was the dawn of surgery, and the 20th belonged to the birth of entirely new categories of pills, perhaps we will see the potential of genetics and related science realized for the remaining 80 or so years of our century. There’s no guarantee the Pfizers and Mercks of the world will be the relevant parties for these to-be-built treatment modalities. Recall that Sports Illustrated did not launch ESPN, nor did Sony introduce the iPod.
Zooming back out to the larger issue of the innovations required for the planet we are rapidly populating, two key questions will have to be answered:
-what kind of organizational structures will help envision and develop ways to feed, move, educate, and/or employ large numbers of people?
-in what domain will the truly big innovations reside?
It’s easy to perceive the trajectory of history as moving upward: higher standards of living, as measured by money. Longer life expectancies. Farther reaches of sea and space explored. I was reminded today, though, that part of a 9-billion-person planet will be doing with less: less animal protein, fewer square feet of housing per person, less social mobility in a given country even as the broader population does better on the whole.
Thus the new innovation might be in the arrangement of social order: both the limited-liability joint stock corporation and republican democracy are human inventions (as are human slavery, dictatorship, and monarchies). The next big thing might be “social technology,” designed to organize large numbers of people, along with their wants and needs, just as we saw with the pre-Reformation Catholic church in Europe, or Pax Britannica from about 1815 to 1914. (Technology matters a lot for these social arrangements, as witness the printing press’s role in the decline of the former or the place of steam power in the latter.) Alternatively, there might emerge some innovation as we more traditionally define it: technologies to move people in cities, process and distribute nutritional protein, or teach people how to earn a living. In either case, time is getting short: according to United Nations projections, global population will hit the 8 billion mark in about 6 years.