Updated: Jan 4, 2021
The last 200 years have seen unprecedented growth in population, productivity and wealth, coupled with the acceleration of technological innovation (Kuznets, 1973, 1966). I will call this the 200-year miracle. How, then, did this miracle occur?
David Deutsch observed that:
‘We survive and thrive by solving each problem’
‘all problems are soluble.’
‘with the right knowledge’.
We use the practical and philosophical tools of science, technology and innovation (STI) to solve all manner of problems to improve our quality of life. The study of STI explains how society, science and technology interact to create the 200-year miracle.
Schumpeter’s theory of development assigns a paramount role to the entrepreneurs and their innovations introduced in the process of economic development (Fagerberg et al., 2005, Chapter 1). Solow demonstrated that innovation is a mechanism for escaping the impact of depreciation and limiting factors of capacity in both capital and labour, the so-called ‘iron logic of diminishing returns’ (Solow, 1994; Tabbarok, 2016). Critical to understanding innovation is that technology includes not only products as physical artefacts, but also ideas about:
(1) the systematic improvement of production systems; and
(2) development of supporting organisations (Fagerberg et al., 2005; Kuznets, 1973a;
Rothwell et al., 1974).
STI is a complex multi-directional system and not a linear flow of product development (Pavitt, 1984; Rothwell et al., 1974).
There is an argument that the ‘200-year miracle’ is primarily due to the scientific revolution that replaced logical positivism (theories from facts) with critical rationalism (Deutsch, 2011; Popper and Hudson, 1963). However, some argue that science alone cannot explain technology (Nightingale, 2014; Pavitt, 1987). There are many claimed examples of successful technology that lack a scientific explanation. An often-used example to justify is the Wright Brothers and invention of powered flight, claimed developed through a process of trial and error rather than rigorous scientific study. However, evidence suggests this is a convenient explanation rather than a truthful one:
‘Shortly after the [Wright] brothers began conducting their experiments in North Carolina, they discovered that the tables of air pressure data provided by Smithsonian scientists were “unreliable” and riddled with errors. They promptly set about building their own wind tunnel to acquire accurate measurements. “We did that work just for the fun we got out of learning new truths,” Orville said in retrospect.
Caution should be used when claiming historical stories as evidence supporting the differentiation between science and technology. More useful is the idea that the emergence of new technologies from science is variable according to industry sector and application (Klevorick et al., 1995; Pavitt, 1984).
Regardless of the preceding debate, the argument that innovation is a practice distinct from both science and technology is compelling. Innovation is the successful commercialisation of technology that relies on systems integration across a multiplicity of skills, disciplines and public and private institutions (Nightingale, 2014). An excellent example of the nuances of STI is the development of the antibiotic penicillin. Discovered by a stereotypical white coat scientist in 1928 (Alexander Fleming) it was not until the 1940s that penicillin was widely adopted, driven by the demand for the treatment of war wounds. The discovery itself was accidental, which undermines the notion that science only proceeds through the careful application of falsificationism. Beyond the initial discovery, it required a multitude of actors, organisations, and systems to scale up, implement and commercialise penicillin:
‘Pharmaceutical and chemical companies played an especially important role in solving the problems inherent in scaling up …….. companies faced new engineering challenges………. ‘
(American Chemical Society, n.d.)
Pavitt’s taxonomy provides a practical framework for understanding this variable integration and rationalizes debate on the oneness of science and technology (Pavitt, 1984). Depending on the industry, innovation may be supplier dominated, production dominated or science-based. Science is more important in some sectors (for example, chemicals), whereas others, such as textiles, are dominated by supplier generated technologies (Pavitt, 1984). Dosi makes the case that science-based industries are more likely to bring about paradigm shifts in innovation; for example, electronic component development impact on the 20th century (Dosi, 1982). The limitation of Pavitt is that some Chandlerian companies cross all boundaries and integrate all aspects of innovation (Teece, 1993).
In conclusion, STI has combined to bring about the ‘200 year miracle’. Integration of STI is variable, nuanced and depends on the industrial sector. Pavitt’s taxonomy provides a useful framework for understanding sectorial innovation. It provides insight into business strategies that can be adapted to maximise the chance of diffuision of technology and commercial success.
Dr Simon Stromberg is an Energy Consultant currently studying for an MSc in Energy Policy at the University of Sussex.
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