View inside the China Solar factory in Hangzhou.
Courtesy of Lang Lang / Reuters View inside the China Solar factory in Hangzhou.

A recent Economist article entitled "Has the Ideas Machine Broken Down?" navigates the blurry territory of innovation and the pace of technological change. Several economists and Silicon Valley pundits, from Tyler Cowen to Peter Thiel, believe that innovation has stagnated in spite of many recent fast-paced changes. The author's summary of the views of Robert Gordon, a Northwestern University economist, is particularly blunt:

"Mr Gordon sees it as possible that there were only a few truly fundamental innovations—the ability to use power on a large scale, to keep houses comfortable regardless of outside temperature, to get from any A to any B, to talk to anyone you need to—and that they have mostly been made. There will be more innovation—but it will not change the way the world works in the way electricity, internal-combustion engines, plumbing, petrochemicals and the telephone have."

It is notable that all the "fundamental innovations" that Gordon mentions are conveniences to human life. Missing is a consideration of innovations designed specifically to increase human knowledge, such as the telescope, or technologies that improve the lives of other organisms and the general health of the planet, such as carbon sequestration.

A New York Times article published in the same week describes China's massive investment in college education, based on its intent to accelerate economic development with a new generation of knowledge-workers. Many of these graduates will pursue one or more of China's seven national development priorities, which are "alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced information technologies, high-end equipment manufacturing and so-called new energy vehicles, like hybrid and all-electric cars." Of these, at least four are clearly focused on improving environmental health, and all on knowledge-building.

If successful in meeting its established targets for these priorities, China could deliver just the kind of innovation the world needs—and at a rapid pace. Moreover, unlike Gordon's fundamental innovations—which fueled economic development at great environmental cost—the realization of China's objectives promises to benefit both economic and environmental balance sheets.

To be fair, the Economist does not fully agree with Gordon's view, claiming that technological development has kept pace in many ways he hasn't addressed and does not adhere to a smooth curve. Rather, in the article "The Great Innovation Debate," the journal blames the over-regulated state for any hindrances to innovation: "For governments that do these things well—get out of the way of entrepreneurs, reform their public sectors and invest wisely—the rewards could be huge." Although it certainly has its own challenges, China's government might prove to fit the greater part of this description—and demonstrate that innovation is alive and well today.

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.