Three days, three breakthroughs

Wow, what a ride! Just between 10 and 12 December 2015 –within the blink of an eye–  three events occurred that we will likely consider breakthroughs in a couple of years: the Paris Agreement, the launch of OpenAI, and the first successful run of Wendelstein 7-X. While one of those events is widely agreed as historic, the other two currently are rather weak signals, and their real impact is potentially subject to debate. Still, through their coincidence, they cast a light on the state of innovation today and the different flavours that can take. So let’s go through in chronological order.

10 December, Greifswald, Germany

Wendelstein 7-X is an experimental nuclear fusion reactor, designed and built to test and validate the stellarator principle, which would –unlike other designs– allow for the continuous operation of a fusion reactor. The largest of its kind in the world, this experimental reactor was completed in October 2015. Only ten weeks later, it was “fired up” successfully for the first time to create and hold a helium plasma at a temperature of 1,000,000 degree Kelvin. Even if this first run is only an initial step on a long way to a commercially viable fusion reactor, it marks a critical step forward for the underlying science of nuclear fusion as well as the technologies required to safely contain it.

This is the kind of innovation we’d expect at the far end of the research quadrant of the innovation landscape, where the understanding of science and the mastery of technology work hand in hand to move forward. Clearly, this is where we’d expect public investment for a public purpose. And that’s what we find: about 1bn € over ten years, with 80% German and 20% European funding for this large scale infrastructure that could potentially offer an alternative solution to our energy challenges, and replace the nuclear fission reactors we use today.

11 December, San Francisco, USA

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been the focus of intense research for a considerable period of time, predominantly funded directly by commercial enterprises like Google and –more recently– Facebook. One might conclude the story here with an uneasy feeling that progress in AI would largely depend upon the commercial interest of Big Business. That’s where OpenAI could make a fundamental difference. Founded and funded by Silicon Valley celebrities like Elon Musk, Sam Altman and Peter Thiel, Open AI is set up as a non-commercial research institution with the goal to

… advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.

Equipped with 1bn US$, OpenAI will have the means to meet its ambitions of growing to become “a leading research institution which can prioritize a good outcome for all over its own self-interest.

From an innovation perspective, this is a novel approach at the far end of the disruptive quadrant. Actually, this approach aims at disrupting the conventional business models of Silicon Valley and to pre-empt proprietary control over AI. In this case, we see considerable private investment (by sheer coincidence, the same order of magnitude as for Wendelstein 7-X) for a public purpose. While we’ve seen many philanthropic foundations established for the betterment of the human condition, the case of OpenAI is significant, exactly because it commits a major private investment to promote widely shared (ideally public) benefits. Even more, OpenAI is set up to prevent an undue privatisation of benefits arising from AI – I’m not aware of another example for a private investment focused on a public purpose and positioned against other private interests. That’s a truly entrepreneurial mindset at work.

12 December, Le Bourget, France

When 195 countries adopt a legally binding universal climate agreement, that is truly amazing. If you recall the epic failure of the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, you might even consider this achievement entirely unexpected. But the presidency of the Conference of the Parties (COP) had drawn the right conclusions: through early preparation and tenacious negotiation with all parties, at all levels, through an inclusive and transparent approach, the presidency and its supporters managed to secure the buy-in of all parties. The resulting Paris Agreement will replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2020 and shape the future of our planet for the larger part of the 21st century.

The innovation in this Agreement is manifold; it’s in the combination of the 2-degree-target with the more ambitious 1.5-degree-target; it’s in the commitment to provide financial support to the countries most affected by climate change; it’s in the promotion of technology development and technology transfer; it’s all over the document. But most importantly, this Agreement is an encouraging example for innovation in the fringes of the wicked quadrant, where the underlying problem is still being debated, while potential solutions are difficult to find. Rather than complaining about the many unknowns in this quadrant, the Paris Agreement sets a path forward: it defines a global political agenda that gives orientation and encouragement for potential solutions to be developed; it defines a new institutional framework for dealing climate change, making it more accessible, and hopefully solving it over time.

The last few days gave us a range of examples for innovation outside the usual business context: through research, through entrepreneurship, through institutional change. We hardly ever see this spectrum unfold over such a short period of time, but when we do, that’s a strong reminder of what we are able to achieve if only we focus the necessary ideas, resources, and attention.

 

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