Chile Pepper Field in China

The Landscape of the Next Great Innovations

We seem to be waiting for the technological silver bullet that would make it possible to continue with nowadays’ “normal” lifestyles that aren’t really making us happy, but are just too dangerously comfortable and convenient to give up.

Caught up in the dazzle of “just one more thing,” of all that electronic tools/toys can do (more so than what we can do with them, it often seems), innovation itself is seen as the domain of technology – with Moore’s Law continuing in computing; information and communication technology changing the very ways we interact with each other, biotechnology making it possible to change nature and ourselves down to our genetic makeup.

In reality, paralleling how the ultimate green tech is not so much technology as techniques of better living, the areas – in both the abstract and the physical sense – where creativity will more strongly need to, and could more easily, arise than anywhere else are cultural ecosystems, and the tools and techniques of and for better living.

In all the hype about the great gadgets just over the horizon, the innovations already breaking through the morning’s dusk, the simple reality of life is forgotten: We all need to eat, be clothed, interact – and the recent affluence that made even those basic parts of life nothing but a commercial transaction, with production far removed from people and places we know, is simply not normal.

It is a fluke, in historical perspective, far more easily disrupted than currently assumed, and far less contributive to better lives than living in affluence makes it appear.
That is not to say that some elements of our high-tech, digital lifestyles will probably, and can hopefully, continue.
Wide-ranging, if not entirely global, migration and trade have been realities of life for centuries, if not millennia; modern medicine has increased healthy lifespans – but even here, we can see that there is all too much focus on crisis solutions rather than better ways. Stomach bands once obesity has become morbid are not exactly a solution, especially given that it would be well within possibilities to eat and be active in ways that are a pleasure and a contribution to good health and fitness.

What we all need is to fulfill our needs, make a living, invent jobs – and to have a chance at it even if we come from troubled circumstances.

Can we replace everything we use now with something else?

It’s not at all clear that we can. We have to think about reusing things much more, holding onto things longer and using them more efficiently; rebuilding our cities, our towns, our landscape to be much more energy efficient and resource efficient. So the innovative research and technologies of the future will really be about efficiency.

Michael T. Klare, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine about his new book The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources

Whether urban areas or the countryside, it is considerably more difficult to create high tech for global sales than it is to work the land, work with your hands, work in and for a community – and those human-scale approaches also offer great chances for more jobs, better lives, and a deeper fit into the local environment. A chance to learn to work with the surrounding natural and cultural communities in order to provide for the needs of the people surrounding you.

Looking at history, not so much as the great course of civilization but as the steady heartbeat of human continuity (not least, in indigenous societies), this is how humanity has been making do, and flourishing, for pretty much all of its – our – existence: naturally realizing that life is local, because there was not much of any other way, meeting community needs by working as part of the relevant environments surrounding it.

Of course, entire landscapes may have been changed in the process – but with successful groups, this often did not mean that they attempted to dominate them. Rather, they worked (with) them in ways that were creative, innovative, and given a frame within which to work through the experience transmitted in traditions. Often enough, the change to cultural landscapes resulted in more biodiversity, at least in those parts that were useful to humans.

Now, if we don’t want to have to pay for everything we need in money, energy and resources that look to be increasingly scarce already (meaning that we may soon not be able to do so, anyways), we need to find other, better, ways – the way of nature and people.

The technology we really need to develop, the inventions that will really be great, therefore, are not the high-tech toys to take us out of this world. Rather, they are…

  • the techniques of better living,
  • the tools that last and increase our skill rather than the amount of stuff we supposedly have to possess,
  • the agro-ecosystems that will feed us and provide us with the materials we need even under conditions of resource scarcity and climate change,
  • the architectural designs that will keep us protected from the elements and reasonably comfortable with passive (or even plus-) energy approaches,
  • the businesses that create a social benefit rather than private profit and common loss,
  • the cultural landscapes that provide ecosystem services we all need,

so that we do not have to rely on scarce raw materials, yet scarcer fossil energy, and brute-force technology, to simply survive – let alone live well,…

Chile Pepper Field in China
Tradition and creativity in a chile pepper field in semi-rural China. Of course, it's not just about agricultural innovation, but also technology...

Gerald

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