Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where should innovation come from ?

I have finished reading Roger Pielke's The Climate Fix  and last Thursday  I listened to a talk by Nico Stehr, who basically presented the main thesis in the Hartwell paper.  Both, Roger's book and the Hartwell paper, make an interesting reading, and have, with justice,  been positively reviewed in many other quarters.  Here I would like to comment on one point of  the Hartwell scheme that seems to require some elaboration. Some of the questions posed to Nico Stehr after his talk also raised doubts about the feasibility of 'forced innovation'.

The Hartwell paper advocates an increase in research on new energy to cover the future world energy demand from the rapidly developing countries in Asia and, as a matter of world justice, from the less developed countries in Africa and else where as well.  The energy demand in the developed world in the next 30 years will be very small, according to the International Energy Agency: 95% of the growth in energy demand will occur in the developing world.  The  research boost should be financed by a small carbon tax - if I understood properly- of the  order of magnitude of $5-$10 per tonne of CO2. With present emissions of carbon dioxide of about 30 Gtonnes (3x1010) per year, and a tax of $10 per tonne, the tax revenue could amount to $3x1011 or about 0.6% of global GDP.

 But where is the innovation in new energy sources going to come from ?  And more generally, where does innovation come from ?
I am unsure as to whether there is a unique answer to that question, but I am absolutely no expert on this field. I feel also a bit disoriented about where to look for answers. In my personal experience, I do not have the feeling that forced innovation, i.e. a deliberate search for new inventions, has been very successful in the past. The only example that comes to my mind, not considering defense projects,  is the Apollo project. In other cases, say the internet or mobile electronic devices, or further back into the past the steam engine, it seems that a real need in some fields combined  with serendipity in other fields  gave rise to a 'perfect storm' of rapid development, which often has no other real goal than 'to do new things'. I recall when I started  to use the internet back in 1992, and to be honest nobody at that time seemed to have  the feeling or the foresight that the internet would develop into the giant web that we now everyday use. The internet, as far as I know, was indeed created by public instances-  well, we all know who created the internet- but not for the purpose of advancing worldwide communications of facilitate the explosion of blogging. It would be curious to know whether the  'engineers' tinkering with   the first steam engines were aware of the industrial revolution they were about to trigger.

On the other hand, since when I was a physic student in Spain, the talk about nuclear fusion was all over the place. I recall listening to talks in the early 80's about inertial confinement of tritium pellets which invariably ended with the promise of an unlimited supply of cheap energy in a very short time span.  A couple of weeks ago a radio show still featured an upcoming breakthrough experiment to be conducted in the National Ignition Facility in  California. A huge amount of funding  has been thrown to nuclear fusion research so far. In an unprecedented step, the US, the EU, Russia, Japan, Korea, China and India agreed to build an experimental fusion reactor based on magnetic confinement in Southern France, which no need to say is horribly delayed and already over budget.

The Economist this week includes an interesting article about global scientific productivity and research funding.  In general Asian countries are devoting a growing share of GDP to research spending, as the US does. The US figures are always distorted by the huge volume of research spending on defense, but  theoretically a real innovation on energy could also stem from 'defense innovation'. Research spending by the European Union as a share of GDP is however flat- it has not grown in the last 15 years and it is rather now declining. The share of GDP spent on research typically range between 1.4% of GDP spent by China to 3.4% of GDP spent by Japan, with the European Union and the US lying between these figures. So a spending boost of 0.6% of GDP from the carbon tax will not be negligible.

Another interesting quantity is the number of scientist. Globally there are about 7 million scientist, of which the US, the EU and China each host 1.5 million.  China is thus already at par with the great science powers. in the its number of scientist.  It can be argued that due to the much larger Chinese population the proportion of scientist, at about 1 per thousand, is still very low there. But obviously, each Chinese scientist does not innovate just for his/her one thousand compatriots. The production of Chinese scientists will spread  countrywide. A more important figure would be the research spending per scientist, for which the Chinese figure is about one sixth of the US spending. 

Roger Pielke Jr. seems to advocate in the Climate Fix to give a serious try to carbon capture and storage. This appears the technique that can be put up in place most quickly and at lower cost.  If carbon-capture turns to be feasible at global scale, I wonder if perhaps by 2040 the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide could be controlled at will. But if the 'optimal' concentration is different for the USA and China, if for instance one of them benefits (or suffers) more  than the other from higher temperatures, then we will have a problem.


Anonymous said...

The Toll/Pielke/Lomborg/Nordhaus and so low carbon tax idea has a lot of merit.

Research targeting an area can make a big difference. Defence research is a good example. Why exclude it? Defence research in the US has rapidly and radically altered the military. Another example of targeted research is medical research which has pushed the survival times of cancer patients up and the life expectancy of everyone. Surely similar things could be done for different types of energy.

Unknown said...

I think that carbon capture and storage (CCS) requires strong regulation on new power plants, either ban or taxation of builiding new plants which vent CO2. Perhaps even a serious research will not start until people believe that some regulation is inevitable. (Positive incentives does not seem enough.)

Another problem of CCS is that its effectiveness strongly depends on geological setting. I believe that CO2 will almost certainly leak from ground below Japan (located along a plate boundary) before 1000 years, even though I heard that a small-scale experiment survived two significant (but not very big) earthquakes. Australia, USA, Canada and Brazil (but not all parts of these) seem to be geologically calm enough. I am not sure about China, India and Europe.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I am not sure if "forced innovation" is the right term. No one can ensure a specific innovation with incentives or investments. What is successful will be known only wih hindsight. But the reverse is also true: if we do not make massive investments, innovation will not occur, or more precisely, not in the required timeframe and scale.
Much depends on the creation of a climate of expectations, new energy technologies should be put on the agenda like other current "sexy" technologies such as stem cells, cancer cures, micro-electronics, etc.
The green desire seems to stop at windmills and solar panels. It is time facing the real challenges without denouncing this as placing "too much hope in technology" -- what are the alternatives?

Pekka Pirilä said...

You are perfectly right. There are many possibilities for advancing technological development, but no way of knowing, which path will be most successful and which turns in hindsight to be a waste of resources.

The world has changed through technology development more than anybody has been able to forecast, but very often not where the largest expectations were, but in some other way.

Most of the greatest innovations have opened completely new directions rather than solved problems judged to be most important at the time of invention. Microelectronics starting from transistor is a prime example.

Energy technology gained a lot of interest from the oil crises of 1970's. Since that time a lot of public funding has gone to energy research. Many good results have been obtained, but no real break-troughs. It is difficult to figure, how even excessive funding would produce all the results hoped for.

Some modelers have developed models with technology learning and claim based on these models that rapid progress will come out automatically with increasing volumes. Unfortunately all these models are based more on wishful thinking than on knowledge of processes of technological development. Even less experimental basis supports the application of such models in forecasting progress in a single field like energy technology.

Of the regular commentators of this page, Richard Tol has written many good comments on related issues. perhaps he has something to add to this chain as well.

Chris said...

I agree that it is the duty of the governments to take care for innovation and the development of new technologies. As far as I remember, Nico Stehr said in his talk (which I enjoyed very much) that the four energy monopolists in Germany spend less than 1% of their asset on research and development. The problem is that as they are private companies, their main interest is to increase their profits. This small amount of money shows that research is not their main interest but that they can rather increase their profit merely due to their monopoly by increasing energy prices. I assume that this situation is the same in most other countries in the time of globalisation.

This means, if the public has an interest in new technologies (which is think, it has), may it be because of climate change or for any other good reason, governments should take taxes from those big energy companies and spend the money on research. At the same time, the governments should control the energy prices to prevent those companies from pushing their tax costs to the public.

Harry Dale Huffman said...

A few cautionary warnings:

Governments cannot induce innovation, they can at best only mirror the desire of their citizens to reach out to new ideas that may be positively innovative.

Taxing carbon emissions to aid developing countries is a scientifically ill-informed, and thus arbitrary, choice. Climate science, upon which the idea of carbon control is based, is not a robust science. For example, it is fundamentally divided between "greenhouse effect" and "solar changes driving ocean temps driving global temps" camps. I myself, who have published peer-reviewed articles in atmospheric science (Atmos. Env., v 30-1, Jan. 1996) consider the "greenhouse effect" to be incompetent physics, which has led to obviously ridiculous results (such as the infamous Trenberth "energy balance budget" cartoons, which violate conservation of energy).

Innovation is bottom-up, not top-down. An individual has a new idea, develops it, and presents it to a larger audience. If it is a good idea, it is an innovation, but it can be aborted at any level, from the first people the innovator communicates with, to larger groups, to government agencies, executives and legislators. The society has to be open to new ideas, or they are aborted before ever they come to mass attention. We live in a time of clinging to unquestioned dogmas, both old and new, and as a society this makes us incompetent to recognize critical new ideas that individuals bring forth. The world -- including the scientific world -- needs to let go of its tyrannous dogmas first, if it wants to see real progress. The first dogma to go should be, that the "experts" put forth by the highest authorities -- and, in fact, the "authorities" themselves -- are right, and should not be criticized, questioned, and removed from our (society's) consideration, when we find them to be incompetent.

The question becomes, when revolution is in the air (whether natural or man-made), who in authority will keep their heads, and not be driven to disastrous decisions, with long-term consequences not only to the peace and living conditions of whole peoples, but to the societal trust in the best authorities and institutions (in science particularly)? Climate science, as promulgated by the UN IPCC (or any other political entity), is not to be trusted.

Werner Krauss said...

We also should not forget that innovation comes very much from the people (and not only governments). The spectacular rise of wind energy in Germany is mostly due to the energy crisis in the seventies, the protest movement against nuclear energy, and many other grassroots initiatives. It was public pressure that forced the (reluctant) government to react and to jump on this bandwagon. The mix of public pressure and government incentives finally led to the wind energy boom, and also to technological innovation.
Thus, innovation is not a one-way-street from above; it is not only academic or institutionalized research; instead, it is the result of bottom-up initiatives, protest movements and civil courage.

Harrywr2 said...

There is a real need for innovation in materials and manufacturing science.

Whether one is talking about an internal combustion engine, solar concentrating array or nuclear power plant the efficiency of the device is going to be a function of operating temperature, the higher the better.(Carnot's theorem)

Unfortunately, humanities knowledge of high temperature materials manufacturing appears to be somewhat constrained at the moment.

Martin Heimann said...

Not so sure if CCS is viable large/global-scale solution. Current annual global CO2 emissions if liquified would cover Germany 1 m high. And underground, CO2 forms with water carbonic acid, which makes all kind of chemical reactions with the rocks...

PolyisTCOandbanned said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nils Simon said...

Eduardo, due to your article, I also put down some thoughts on governing innovation.

eduardo said...


thank you very much for the link to your interesting blog. Actually, my was not rather expressing skepticism, or not overly, but rather as a question mark to be answered by experts in this field, which probably require knowledge of economics, social science and maybe even mass psychology. I lack knowledge in all those fields.

I would also agree with Reiner, and in general with one of the starting points of the Hartwell paper, that the Kyoto-Copenhagen train leads to nowhere. This is actually something that could be agreed upon by everyone: regardless on which side of the debate one stands, it seems obvious that that avenue is closed, for the better or for worse. Innovation seems indeed the only feasible path - some would think it is the path of last resort.

In my post I also wanted to raise the question of the mechanism of innovation, now independently of the climate problem. For instance, Finland apparently has one of the best school systems, but it is by far not the country with the highest spending on education. By the same token, some countries innovate more than others, and although money is clearly important, it is perhaps not the whole story.

If we now need to harvest the fruits of innovation as soon as possible, it would be wise to mechanistically understand innovation, if this is feasible at all.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

not sure what you mean by "mechanistically" -- just stumbled upon a paper that may be relevant:
How Do Emerging Technologies Conquer the World?
An Exploration of Patterns of Diffusion and Network Formation

Werner Krauss said...

@eduardo 14

1) Innovation is nothing that stands alone, it is always innovation of something. Thus, there is no general rule for innovation per se.
2) Natural scientists tend to have a sociological perspective on societal problems. Both are similar in having a bird's eye view, to see problems from a distance. The problem is that even birds are inside of climate (and scientists inside society).
3) The Hartwell paper is in my understanding not an objective account; instead, it is a (perfectly just) statement by an influential pressure group.
4) Innovation is closely related to the question of power. It is an illusion to think that there will be some "honest brokers" in science who will present the best solution which will be put into practice by reasonable governments instructed by sociologists. Instead, governments and sociologists will react to pressure groups in order to keep things going. That's what happened with wind energy in Germany. While scientists and politicians still put their bets on nuclear power, activists, farmers and courageous entrepreneurs already invested in wind energy.
4) The question for scientists is how to support carbon reduction politics without compromising or misusing the authority of science. The Hartwell paper is a good example to discuss this question.

Anonymous said...

Eduardo, let me begin by trying to answer more generally.

I consider broad-minded explanation attempts. In particular I recall one strange point in Peter Snow's article on human development and the so-called intelligence quotient which made me curious and to think about, for instance, trendy "Eliteuniversitäten" or Power Elites:

      "'Think of the comparative benefits. Estimates have been of as much as a 20 per cent reduction in poverty and welfare dependency as a result of relatively minor rises in average IQ across the population.' He [Savulescu, author of Human Enhancement] emphasises that increases at the lowest IQ levels ­ below 70 points ­ could bring the biggest benefit"s. (See "Woe, Superman?" An Interview with Julian Savulescu.)

Another attempt from another source: Several weeks ago in Germany was a minor turmoil around a new extensive study by the business lawyer and historian Eckhard Höffner. He analyzes in a two-volume book, Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts, that innovations — did not come by accident alone, but — were influenced by some factors of which Höffner considers the copyright as a main driver. Indeed he focuses on (intellectual) properties (of authors) though I think it is applicable here, too (think about patents). His examination brings f.ex. face to face Great Britain's publishing progress (where copyright was established in 1710) with "Germany's" (where a similar policy was introduced in 1837). Confer also his lecture "Comparison between a System with and without Copyright" (with a “hockey stick graph“), held in front of the British Academy in London on the 27th October 2010. The startling was his conclusion: He argued that Germany's famous industrial boost which startet in the 18th century could be due to "immunisation" of the copyright violators from prosecution.

For me it is obvious that some definite powerful stakeholders, influencing diverse societies egregiously, are trying to answer this question: Innovations can "come" from us all (also cf. Anton Ego's Review in Ratatouille) — in one form sooner (Modernism (rather innovators)) or another later (Conservatism (rather conservators)). On all accounts innovations will come.

A lot of people seek for innovations but what is even most important in our case: The maximum possible consensus/es and operating range/s is/are sought — at least as yet.

One more of Camus's "longing to solve" Sisyphus (cf. also for instance here):

      "Die absurde Freiheit

      "Was ich weiß, was sicher ist, was ich nicht leugnen kann, was ich nicht verwerfen kann — das zählt. Ich kann alles leugnen von dem Teil von mir, der von ungewissen Sehnsüchten lebt, nur nicht das Verlangen nach Einheit, den Drang, Lösungen zu finden, den Anspruch auf Klarheit und innere Stimmigkeit. Ich kann alles widerlegen in dieser Welt, die mich umgibt, die mich abstößt oder begeistert, nur nicht dieses Chaos, diesen König Zufall und diese göttliche Gleichwertigkeit, die aus der Anarchie erwächst."

In English by Justin O’Brien:

      "What I know, what is certain, what I cannot deny, what I cannot reject—this is what counts. I can negate everything of that part of me that lives on vague nostalgias, except this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion. I can refute everything in this world surrounding me that offends or enraptures me, except this chaos, this sovereign chance and this divine equivalence which springs from anarchy."


eduardo said...

For those interested, a recent public lecture was delivered at the London School of Economics:

Where do good ideas come from

'Steven Johnson has spent twenty years immersed in creative industries, was active at the dawn of the internet and has a unique perspective that draws on his fluency in fields ranging from neurobiology to new media. In his new book, he identifies the key principles to the genesis of great ideas, from the cultivation of hunches to the importance of connectivity and how best to make use of new technologies. By recognising where and how patterns of creativity occur – whether within a school, a software platform or a social movement – he shows how we can make more of our ideas good ones. This event celebrates the publication of his latest book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation'

podcast here

Hans Erren said...

Innovation will come from India and China, they will produce the first cheap electric car,
simply because they must.

Unknown said...


my personal observation in energy financing is, that there are a lot of promising ideas that could potentially lead us to a carbon-free economy without harming wealth. Many of them have issued in the vicinity of universities but now lack financing to demonstrate their viability. Others are more mature and driven by engineers or technicians who lack business administration skills. I believe that innovation will nevertheless come from the business sector, not so much from "pure" scientists.

In the past few years, I have seen several business concepts around the formation of closed materials cycles that may one day replace our waste-based processes. CCS is a bad example of waste disposal, where it would be much more promising to use the CO2 from coal power plants in order to produce something useful, e.g. biofuels or sugar. Most household waste can be transformed to biochar (coal) or to high-nutrient soil.

Imagine a city where all waste water is used to nourish vegetable plants and leaves behind neither waste nor CO2 emissions. A coal power plant in a sunny location that produces electricity, heat and jet fuel from algae converters. A reforestation project in a desert that consumes waste water from a big city and produces fuel, animal feed and improves local climate with the help of Jatropha trees. A biomass producer in areas with poorer soil that produces bio-ethanole. A biochar producer in the vicinity of huge animal farms who gets money from farmers to dispose animal faeces, plus earns money from selling coal and fertilizers.

All those examples are currently seeking financing, but are often too far away from commerical maturity for finding capital from private investors. It is here where governments could create venture capital funds that help young entrepreneurs to bring their concepts to technical and economical maturity with a very high benefit to society.

The bureaucratic alternatives of carbon taxes and supra-national processes and CO2 repository identification and so on will most likely not lead to measurable progress in overcoming the carbon economy, at least not in a reasonable time frame. Instead, funding the right business concepts will quickly do so. I am personally convinced that a 80%+ carbon-free economy by 2050 is quite easy to achieve by fostering the right technologies. In my view, the issue is too much a reliance on political processes and large-scale technology deployment and not enough trust in the ingenuity of ordinary people.

wflamme said...


I think Gerhard Mensch, "Das technologische Patt" still provides an interesting background for that kind of problem - although some of Mensch's conclusions are backed up by insufficient historical data, are sometimes far-fetched and thus questionable.

However his conclusions drawn from the timing of invention, substantial innovation and improved innovation are rather appealing. In retrospective, there seems to be a considerable lag (at least several decades) between invention and substantial innovation. The basis of coming substantial breakthroughs will probably not originate in the latest R+D's spear head but will possibly emerge by finding technologically and economically attractive niche(s) for some invention from the past.

Re your mentioning of fission: We should consider our R+D efforts a human legacy - not something we in our lifetime will make some profit of.

EliRabett said...

One of the things that you have to recognize about technological development research is that by its nature it cannot be efficient. What you are looking for is a few very high payoff winners what you should be willing to accept is a much larger number of losers. Moreover, the winners, need not be applied in the same way that the developers thought it would be. GPS is one example

What analysis can identify is outright losers to avoid. There are any number of folk out there hawking "free energy" machines, magnetic whatnot, and surprisingly these often get sponsorship (Eli knows of a case that has consumed ~$60 million).

eduardo said...

@ 19

I could believe that in the developed world innovation by small steps could on the long-term achieve big gains, but in the developing world in Asia and specially in Africa I would say that what is needed is a very big leap forward, very different ways of generating and distributing electricity.

wflamme said...


'the very big leap forward' ... (aka 'salvation by solution') I have that on my christmas wish list, too. Who hasn't?

Hoever I'm in doubt whether such ingenuity will reliably emerge just by throwing money at some fields of research/engineering.
With respect to energy supply, there's already enormous incentive just because of the immense amount of prospective profit. Actually it's the same situation for food production, health care, manufacturing, material sciences, mobility and transportation, resources mining ... and if you take a broader perspective, there always has been incredible incentive in every field.

However with respect to that much incentive (and money spent on R+D and next big future), actual progress has overall been slow and slowly expanding without revolutionary surprises.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

The challenge is on several levels, innovation in research, development in business, market introduction, and insertion into existing infrastructures. Incumbent interests will try to block such potentially disruptive developments. Hence the issue is not only one of technology innovation, but a change at the level of "technological regime" which requires policy change.
For an overview, see e.g.
Geels, F. Major system change through stepwise reconfiguration: A multi-level analysis of the transformation of American factory production (1850–1930)." Technology in Society 28, no. 4 (November 2006): 445-476.

wflamme said...

Thank you, Reiner, that makes an interesting read.

The most interesting details I didn't know about were the many alternatives available (and tried out) for the traditional direct shaft drive in addition to electrical drives. In retrospective, the success of the electrical unit drive concept at that time wasn't a guaranteed outcome at all. And who would have imagined that the first successful use for electrical motors was by decentralizing shafts, not replacing them?

Now I'm even more in doubt if we can find a way to predict success in advance. Maybe that's why competion, trial and error - say evolution - is such a successful concept.