Energy for innovation

As the key resource that defines our standard of living, energy has shaped the evolution of our culture not just for decades or centuries, but since the beginning of human society. A wide variety of investigations in cultural anthropology took a deep dive into the effect of energy in the development of human culture. To give just a few examples:

Just how crucial energy is for development and cultural progress is not only visible through these rather abstract conceptual considerations. There is very concrete evidence in the rise of global energy consumption per capita. Its increase since the Industrial Revolution has been relentless, and that increase is clearly correlated with the technological progress, economic prosperity, and improved quality of life we have observed over that same period.

Obviously, our energy hunger kept growing over time. And we have invested our ingenuity in devising innovative means to increase the energy supply so that it could meet the demand. That’s innovation for energy, and that has been a genuine success story. But what about the inverse relation: What do we know about energy for innovation?

Which role does energy play for our innovation capacity? As point of departure, we can use the working definition of innovation as the development and implementation of novel problem-solutions: Where in that equation can we find energy? To see more clearly, we have to look a bit deeper and split the definition into two elements or steps: the first is the generation of novel problem-solutions, the second is their subsequent maturation, development, implementation, their realisation. In other words, the first step in innovation is an act of thinking, the second is an act of doing. Both are creative endeavours, and successful innovation definitely needs both of them. But this separation will give us a better handle on the energy demand of innovation.

The first step is focused on generating novel problem-solutions. These are “just” the unprecedented combinations of problems (previously known or newly emerging) with potential solutions (already employed or just being developed). Generating such novel pairs of problem and potential solution is a thinking exercise that Matt Ridley so eloquently called the meeting and mating of ideas to create new ideas. This thinking exercise is of course greatly facilitated by far-reaching and intense information flow that exposes different ideas and schools of thought. But in itself, such novelty of thought requires only little energy. In fact, the energy consumption of the first step in innovation is limited to second order effects, namely the innovator’s own energy demand for subsistence, travel, and correspondence.

Innovation has a primary energy demand only in the second step, in the development and implementation of those novel problem-solutions, when ideas are honed to become reality, when the thinking is transformed into doing. Such novelty of deed, i.e., the successful pull-through of innovative thought to a practical, functional solution, depends on the energy that is available.

But available energy is not just a question of the amount of energy. More generally speaking of the overall energy flow, we’d need to consider a broad range of factors to describe the energy supply, including the amount, quality, frequency, and form of energy, as well as questions of sustainability, and even the degree of (de)centralisation in the energy transportation grid. I’ll take a more detailed look into this subject in my next post: How does energy flow support and empower innovation?

Stay tuned …


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