Battle of Ideas festival, Westminster, London.
Engineering and technological progress in the modern day feels slow and cumbersome compared to 20, 50 or 100 years ago. It seems the progress we are making today is less impressive, or sometimes even regressive, compared to that of the twentieth century.
Perhaps this is inevitable. For example, the leaps forward made by the invention of the transistor and the microprocessor were far more important than the incremental gains in speed and power-saving with the latest wave of five-nanometre chips, impressive though they are.
Yet there are still plenty of frustrations. Brunel built swathes of bridges, tunnels and tracks all over the country, but now we can’t complete a rail project without massive delays and cost overruns. The revolution created by construction of the motorway system seems a distant memory when we can’t even keep up with pothole repairs. Apple once shocked the world with a touch-screen device, but now every new phone is a vapid iteration and incremental improvement, to the point of mundanity.
What is to be done? The government is always announcing new initiatives to increase innovation, but seldom do we see any benefits. Indeed, government intervention in the form of over-regulation is seen by many as a hindrance to innovation. For example, the Guardian wrote last year that new Brexit rules meant British inventions were being prevented from being sold in the UK. Crash testing and emissions standards have bloated our vehicles. The planned bans on petrol and diesel cars may be forcing manufacturers down the road of all-electric vehicles before the technology is mature enough.
But, as the ill-fated Titanic expedition sadly demonstrated, many regulations were written for a reason. Cars are much safer now. Better safety standards for appliances mean fewer house fires. Enforcing a universal phone charger may hamper innovation, but it does make life a lot easier in many ways, too.
Maybe the laws of physics are the ultimate barrier we face? We’ve been promised nuclear fusion energy for 50 years but even the latest experimental reactors barely produce more power than gets put in.
What is holding innovation back? Have we run out of ideas or are we limited by the laws of physics? Have we pretty much done all the ‘big stuff’? Has government intervention been a help or a hindrance? Do we even believe in technological progress anymore?
Steve Jordan – director, hyperTunnel Limited
Simon Nash – environmentalist; speaker; activist and founder, Green Oil bicycle lubes
Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos – visiting fellow, Ayn Rand Institute; instructor, Ayn Rand University; author, Identity Politics and Tribalism: the new culture wars
Sally Taplin – business consultant, Businessfourzero; visiting MBA lecturer, Bayes Business School
James Woudhuysen – visiting professor, forecasting and innovation, London South Bank University
Martyn Perks – digital business consultant and writer; former Islington by-election independent candidate; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation
Danny Stainton – electric motor design engineer
[Image: Audience participation at the debate.]