What Does 250 Years of Innovation History Say About Our Future?

“Without good stories to help us envision something very different from the present, we humans are easily stuck in our conventional mental programming.”

Per Espen Stoknes

That quote captures a phenomenon that has plagued humans throughout history. In a recent article, Per Espen Stoknes looks at 250 Years of Innovation and what it reveals about the future. History is indeed very revealing, a fact that explains why Futurists spend so much time in the past. Whether it is the Uncanny Similarities to the 1920’s or other Lessons from History, applying history is very instructive. That quote speaks to a status quo bias that has existed in every age. As the article’s author describes, we have a strong emotional bias that prefers the current state of affairs over change. That bias now hampers our response to an ecologically destructive future. The article views the topic through this lens.

Status quo bias is real, and in ordinary times has stalled efforts to advance human development. But these are not ordinary times, and as Per Espen Stoknes describes, our inertia will be swept away by an unstoppable wave of innovations heading our way. That is what likely separates this decade from the recent past – and we have been here before. The article explores the waves of innovation that led to major societal shifts since the start of the industrial revolution. Once again, this look at history is instructive. History, in this case, tells us that five historic waves of innovation changed our economies. Each wave, lasting between forty and seventy years, overthrew the prior order, reflected in changes to institutions, companies, and infrastructure. So what can we learn from exploring each wave?

As you read the article, notice the use of Storytelling. If you were a visionary living years ahead of these waves and you described the world you saw, you were likely laughed out of the building. Now think about the stories being told today, only this time, factor in the speed at which innovation is occurring. With storytelling in mind, let’s look at the five previous waves. The first wave was mechanization, spanning the 70-year period between 1760 and 1830. In this wave, the steam engine reshaped society. Specifically, Britain went from an agrarian society to an industrial one, where the owners of capital challenged the nobility of that era. With this shift came a restructure of the economy, what has come to be known as a techno-economic paradigm shift. Per the article, wave two involved steam, steel, and railways, lasting between 1830 and 1900. In another use of storytelling, Per Espen Stoknes states that visionaries were probably saying that in 30 to 40 years, one person will move 200 or 300 horse carriages of cargo in one day — without a horse! The railway described in the story was not possible without the innovation of steel production, which made not just railways possible but also high-rise buildings and larger ships. The ripple effect impacted trade, cities, coasts, settlements, and agricultural production.

The third wave spanned 1900 to 1970. Whereas the major innovations of the second industrial revolution (often referred to as the great inventions) were electricity, internal combustion engine, and telephone, the article focuses on the invention of the assembly line and mass production. Innovation can only drive prosperity if it is shared. This wave was about the democratization of innovation and the establishment of our modern society. Economic growth surged, but the decline of mom-and-pops shops was underway. Wave four overlapped with the previous wave, spanning the years 1945 and 1990. This wave was about electronics, communications, and computers. Often referred to as the third industrial revolution, the wave spawned television companies, telecommunications networks, and news-broadcasting networks. Whereas previous waves restructured society, this wave began the process of restructuring minds.

The fifth wave spanning 1985 to present day, was driven by digital and the Internet. Once viewed as a fad, the Internet again reshaped society. Viewed through the lens of value, the shift is clear: petroleum and car companies used to be the world’s most valuable corporations, but today, the five largest companies by market capitalization in the world are from the fifth wave: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. What has been true throughout these waves is a shift in the value-creation logic of the economy. Ingrained business models moved from a position of strength to one of weakness. Each wave therefore followed a pattern. What does this pattern tell us about the emerging sixth wave? The article refers to five phases of each wave as outlined by Carlota Perez: eruption, frenzy, turning point, synergy, and maturity. See the Article for a description of each phase – but keep in mind that speed is a variable that separates this emerging wave from past periods.

When waves of innovation put societies on the cusp of change, those most invested in the old ways rarely grasp the speed with which those ways will become obsolete.

Per Espen Stoknes

So, what is the next wave? Per the article, the sixth wave is a green wave spanning the years 2015 to 2060. This wave sees a shift from a focus on labor productivity to one of resource productivity. A solar energy revolution driven by dramatic reductions in cost is one driver of resource productivity. The article mentions several others in the form of consumer innovations that represent an abundant wave of innovations that enable a Low Energy Demand (LED) future with better lives. The World Economic Forum recognizes what it calls an “innovation tsunami that has the potential to wash over the world’s energy systems.” Meanwhile, the old order is struggling. Per the article, the question is not if renewables will overtake fossils but how quickly. The true comparison to previous waves lies in the form of substitutes. The railway and cars were substitutes for horses, while spinning jennies were substitutes for people. In this green wave, substitutes are emerging all over the place.

Throughout these historical waves, Catalysts Emerged to Drive Human Action. Sometimes these catalysts are major events like world wars, other times, it is simply the economics of substitutes that are better, safer, healthier, and more profitable. So, if someone stops to tell you a story about the green world of 2060, you may want to pay attention.

3 thoughts on “What Does 250 Years of Innovation History Say About Our Future?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s