Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Could unemployed bankers kick-start an invention revolution?

Where have all the inventions gone? Ask people what the most exciting inventions of the past twenty years were and they’ll talk about iPods and Blackberries and, er, memory sticks and Skyboxes and Xboxes and um, wi-fi and broadband.

And while all those inventions are wonderful and have arguably improved our quality of life, they’re hardly on the same level of wow as the inventions of the phone, radio, TV, semi-conductors, X-rays and space rockets. Even the internet was invented quite some while back.

Of course, you can’t deny that innovation has accelerated. Everything’s better, faster, smaller, cheaper and uses less power. But 99% of it is just tweaking what we have already or sticking more and more things together in one box.

Given the tools we have nowadays and the VC money available, and given that modern economies are based on constant innovation and universities churn out design engineers by the thousand, you’d think that there’d be a world-changing invention every other year.

Why on earth isn’t there?

Perhaps the most creative engineers are being offered too much money to design upgrades to bother with true breakthroughs. Or perhaps the real geniuses are too eccentric to gain support from today’s dull, conformist boardrooms.

I don’t know. But I do know that we need grand inventions like never before. The world’s in a hell of a mess and governments, whether democratic or totalitarian, have proved to be utterly ineffective at doing anything about it.

We need inventions that produce and store energy affordably and efficiently on a domestic scale. We need smart clouds that reflect sunlight at the right time and let it through at the right time. And I’d be happy with self-cleaning boot soles that shed dog poo before it smeared itself all over my doormat.

Well, maybe there’s new hope. We’ve suddenly got thousands of wealthy, risk-addicted and highly competitive individuals thrown out of their jobs, looking around for another way to make a buck. They’re not going to invent anything themselves (except for a new financial bubble if we let them) but some of them are quite likely to set themselves up as VCs and invite proposals from the people who can. Some of them may even put a priority on “better world” inventions, as a way to redeem their guilt-ridden souls (well, maybe). 

Perhaps we have even more reason to cheer their redundancies than we thought.

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