Most Innovation Is Invisible

Neal Stephenson's recent talk on "Innovation Starvation" strikes a nerve in every engineer: we don't build anything anymore. With the end of high-visibility mega-projects like the space shuttle, it's an understandable notion. Another way to look at it is that the innovation of our era is incremental and invisible.

The telcos have invested billions to create a worldwide high-speed mobile data network. The only manifestation of this gigantic project is the occasional poorly-hidden tower disguised as a tree. In exchange, we are never lost, can always meet our friends at an event with no planning, are always informed, record or reference any memory, and can travel in unfamiliar places like a local.

Our electricity system is undergoing a seismic shift away from coal and toward natural gas. For the last decade, 90% of the new generation capacity in ISO New England has been highly-efficient, relatively low-carbon combined cycle gas turbines. If each of these replaced a coal plant, you're talking an avoided-carbon equivalent equivalent to a few hundred wind turbines. Cape Wind is a big, visible project with a high feel-good factor. But the invisible innovations in natural gas exploration that have made this cleaner fuel relatively cheap have had much more impact.

Even the military (which used to spontaneously generate battleships and bombers like aristotelian flies) is assembling its toys from loose networks of small parts. The drone that just executed Anwar al-Awlaki is a fragile model airplane connected to a bunch of satellites, a guy in a trailer in Nevada, and world-class intelligence gathering.

To a generation that grew up on glossy books showing us the Future in its flying-car glory, this is all unsatisfying stuff. Sure, practical supersonic transport would cut my flight duration to Europe by a few hours. But the ability to rent a bike in Boston and return it in Cambridge saves more time per year. There is plenty of innovation happening, Neal. You just need to look with different eyes.

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