The treadmills of innovation

Unbounded exponential growth (ie the superlinear power law) is pretty much a given in the human world, and Geoffrey West describes how this is derived from the dynamics of social interactions in Scale.

We have, to date, avoided inevitable collapse through innovation, and innovation is accelerated through the exponential growth of people. That’s why Malthus and the Club of Rome were wrong in their predictions of collapse.

This “innovation is the charm” argument does, however, eventually unravel. It buys us time, but not infinite time.

As shown in West’s graph, innovation needs to get faster to avoid collapse. And not just minor innovation, but far-reaching innovation on the scale of the steam engine, or the internet. You jump off one treadmill before it spears you through the back wall, only to land on another that is going even faster. And again, and again, and again.

The thesis runs that eventually we can’t innovate fast enough and so reach a singularity and collapse. Kurzweil takes an alternate view: a singularity then immortality.

There may, however, be a way out of this collapse through unbounded growth, and it has to do with redefining the nature of the social interactions that drive growth (borrowing here from West’s remarks at the end of a long lecture on Scale).

If social interactions value things that consume the planet, then avoiding collapse is the desperate treadmill.

If, however, social interactions are built around intangibles, then things could be different.

Perhaps the big paradigm shift that is coming, the big innovation, is to actually change the way we value things. The way we see stuff.

Perhaps the waste world will shift from being literally at the rear end of society to being at its core.

Here’s my thinking.

A system requires continued flows of information, energy and resources.

We have, in recent decades, made information essentially limitless. It is abundant, frictionless and seems everywhere we need it.

I suspect we are right now in a cycle that will see energy become limitless. Renewables will, in short order, make energy abundant, frictionless and everywhere we need it. I realise this is a big call, but it feels like an energy tipping point is being crossed right now.

The final step is to make resources limitless, and we may be just at the cusp of that journey.

What does that look like? For me, it looks like materials are ultimately held by an organisation (government or private) which then leases them to others (the economy) to use. As a condition of this lease, the materials must be used in a way that preserves their value, and they are returned. The whole system is designed to achieve this outcome.

Why would anybody do this? For the same reason anybody does leasing — cash flow and capital. The users of the materials will pay radically less for the ability to use materials just when they need them (and not store them for the vast majority of the time when they do not).

And the owners of the materials will have long life assets that require immense amounts of capital to deploy. They will thus have immense profits.

Adolf (Constantin) Baumgartner-Stoilof, Winter Troika

The troika of low cost, improved cash flow and high profits will make the economy race fast across the collapsing ice. It could just save us.

A broad brush thought.

To keep with the sweeping brushstrokes, the dominant organisation of the future will be like the Facebook of today. And just as Facebook lends you your information (and your privacy), the new organisation will lend you your materials.

It’s probably forming right now.

And just as Facebook didn’t come out of any of the established information players, so too the dominant organisation in this new world won’t come from the world of resources or waste.