Innovation alone won’t solve the big problems

Innovation alone won’t solve the big problems
Breakthrough technologies like wind turbines have been around for decades, but the global community is still far off track to avoid dangerous climate change. According to EIT Climate-KIC, directional systems innovation, is needed, not single-point solutions.

Innovations and new technologies triggered five technological revolutions in modern history, but it is systems innovation that is needed to cope with today’s existential problems of climate change, hunger and poverty, health and nutrition, environmental pollution, social inequality, and deadly diseases.

So says Andy Kerr, Director of Climate KIC for UK and Ireland.

Climate-KIC is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, established by the EU in 2008 to identify and support innovation that helps society mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Kerr says a cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire, the first industrial installation powered by flowing water, ushered in the “Industrial Revolution” in 1771.

It was the first of five technological revolutions that led to the age of steam and railways (1829–1870s), the age of steel, electricity and heavy engineering (1875–1910s), the age of oil, automobiles and mass production (1908–1970s), and the age of information and telecommunications (since the 1970s).

They were all triggered by the invention and diffusion of new technologies.

“Is it any wonder, then, that many people are eagerly awaiting the next technological revolution to solve the most pressing and tangible challenges of the 21st century? asks Kerr.

“A world used to inventing itself out of crises is desperate for techno-fixes.”

“Just consider how much hope people place in carbon removal technologies to compensate for our delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in genetically modified crops to solve global hunger, and in digital technologies to create a more equal society.

“Yet, herein lies a fallacy,” says the Climate KIC Director.

Previous surges of development happened when prosperity was equated with monetary wealth, and were enabled by technical advances through the singular mechanism of making resource extraction and conversion more productive.

“Today’s existential problems will not be resolved by the same logic.”

“Economic expansion has become the problem rather than the solution.”

Wealth accumulation is still needed to lift billions out of poverty and create a more equal society, but it must occur with respect for the limits of our environment and the needs of our communities.

No single technology can enable this type of growth, because the challenges faced are not technical in nature, they are systemic.

In the case of climate change, wind turbines, smart thermostats, and plant-based plastics will be important for more sustainable lifestyles.

But they have been commercially available for decades, and yet the global community is still far off track to avoid dangerous climate change.

We must learn now how to weave these technological advances into the fabric of society along with other cultural, institutional, social, and economic innovations, says Kerr.

“Incremental improvements in solar cell efficiency and electric vehicle charging speeds will be welcome, but they will not unlock change at the scale and pace we need.

“Nor will breakthrough technologies like synthetic fuels and green cement, or technologically mature solutions like heat pumps and carbon-neutral polymers reach any meaningful scale, based on their current techno-economic merits alone.

“If we are to unlock the rapid and unprecedented transformations that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is calling for, we need to shift the paradigm from single-point solutions to directional systems innovation.”

“At EIT Climate-KIC, we define systems innovation as integrated and co-ordinated interventions in economic, political, technological and social systems, and along whole value chains.”

This definition also entails that we intervene in different social domains (such as cities, companies, professions), on different governance levels (municipal, regional, national, and supranational), and within different sectors of the economy (such as industry, energy, land-use, finance) as well as within transversal regimes (such as capital markets, education systems, institutions). We believe that the best way to shift or ‘kick’ these systems is through exploration and experimentation. This is the quintessential learning by doing, testing ourselves forward through real-world experience, so that we can learn the future into being.

“No single organisation can address humanity’s gravest challenges alone.

“That’s why we work with close to 400 innovation partners from the private, public, and academic sectors.

“Mission-led, community-delivered systems innovation requires that we engage with leaders in politics, business, academia, and society.

“It also requires that we engage individuals and organisations operating outside of the mainstream, in the fringes of society and at the edges of the technological universe.

“Over the past nine years, we have supported over 1,500 innovation projects, which have led to the creation of more than 360 new products and services.

“We have also trained more than 17,000 individuals and supported over 1,400 climate-positive start-ups.

“The EIT Climate-KIC community will continue its journey of catalysing exponential increases in decarbonisation and resilience through systems innovation.

“The community is open to ambitious innovators, sharp system thinkers, progressive investors, experienced innovation practitioners, determined public sector officials, and creative voices, and anyone else ready to address the most wicked problem the world has ever faced.”

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