Is the era of profound innovation over?

Some interesting articles in this week’s Economist on innovation at and In short, the view is that the era of transformational change (steam, jets, telephones, etc) is behind us. We’re doomed to incremental innovation that will result in perpetually slow economic and productivity growth.

I don’t agree. I think that many of this era’s breakthroughs like computing and robotics will take time to bed down as measured in 10s of years just like the major technologies of the past. If economic growth is slowling in the developing world, I think automation and the ability to replace people with machines is a  growing contributor – see “Race Against The Machine” by Byrnjolfsson and McAfee, for example. There’s also the ongoing impact of several years of recession.

The narrative that things like sanitation, especially the toilet (see current cover of the Economist) just arrived and improved human health over night is simplistic. The precursor, the privy, was around for a very long time. Like steam (the Greeks and Romans had simple, toy steam engines), it took a long period of tinkering before it became a useful and widely used appliance. The humble U-bend being the key breakthrough in the case of the toilet. As such, it’s too early to tell if this is a fallow period in innovation. Proxy measures like changes in economic growth or productivty rates likely have a complex mix of causes.

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