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Too Much Is Never Enough

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books and culture

Too Much Is Never Enough

Against the prevailing mood, two new books foresee an ever-brighter future. June 6, 2012

Need, Speed, and Greed: How the New Rules of Innovation Can Transform Businesses, Propel Nations to Greatness, and Tame the World’s Most Wicked Problems, by Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran (Harper Business, 304 pp., $27.99)

Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler (Free Press, 400 pp., $26.99)

The shared thesis of these two books was pithily stated, or rather sung, 25 years ago by the band Timbuk3: “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” Vijay Vaitheeswaran, in Need, Speed, and Greed, and Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, in Abundance, argue that humanity’s generally upward climb of the last two centuries is about to accelerate.

Vaitheeswaran, global correspondent for The Economist, is more measured in his claims. His central idea is that the world is about to enter the Age of Disruptive Innovation, a postindustrial revolution of democratized advances and leaps in prosperity. “Now, more than ever, innovation matters,” he writes, a notion few would dispute. Vaitheeswaran highlights both pressing needs for innovation—to address, for instance, bacterial resistance to antibiotics—and new sources of it, such as crowd-sourcing and “frugal innovation” in China and India.

Speed is necessary, Vaitheeswaran writes, because we’re in a race “between development and degradation,” with “wicked problems” accompanying every positive innovation. Issues such as climate change and super-bug pandemics make the world much riskier than even a decade ago; tightly linked global systems spread the consequences of such catastrophes much further. We must, therefore, harness “greed” in the service of addressing these issues. One way to do so is to embrace open innovation through incentive prizes that throw open the doors to problem-solving from any quarter. “Dinosaur” corporations, particularly in the West, must become receptive to new ideas. Finally, the rise of “social entrepreneurs” and hybrid business models that pursue both purpose and profit exemplify what Vaitheeswaran calls “greed for good.”

The need-speed-greed triad is the basis for Viatheeswaran’s “new rules” of innovation, which run the gamut from whimsical (“be the dinosaur that dances”) to clichéd (“think locally, act globally”) to obvious (“the path from stagnation to rejuvenation runs through innovation”). His rules reject the “elitist approach to innovation”—corporate labs, federally funded research and development at universities, and other “top-down” methods—in favor of open innovation and broader global networks. Vaitheeswaran relies heavily on Clay Christensen’s idea of “disruptive innovation” and emphasizes how established incumbents (namely Western countries and corporations) will face challenges from new entrants, particularly China, India, and Brazil. But Vaitheeswaran also sees the United States as resilient and dismisses fashionable claims that China will soon outpace us. Entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Europe, he insists, are innovating, too; they will challenge the developing world’s (often state-backed) incumbents.

Any reader following the nonfiction bestseller list will find little new here. Vaitheeswaran’s narrative devolves into a series of citations of consultants, professors, management gurus, and CEOs, and his argument sounds like an updated version of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. Unlike Friedman, however, he argues against anything resembling an oxymoronic “national innovation policy.” Policymakers should read his best chapter, “The Sputnik Fallacies”—they might stop seeing every plan for innovation as a metaphorical space program.

Vaitheeswaran’s causes for optimism include the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University—both founded by Peter Diamandis, coauthor, with Steven Kotler, of Abundance. To call their book optimistic would be an understatement. Diamandis (the book is written from his point of view) constructs an “abundance pyramid” modeled on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs.” Here, the bottom layer consists of food, water, and shelter. The middle layer contains energy, education, and communication technology, while at the top are health and freedom. Technological innovation—including nanotechnology, digital manufacturing, and robotics—is proceeding at such an exponential pace, Diamandis contends, that everyone might have access to all three tiers by 2035.

Diamandis dismisses concerns about resource constraints: “When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible.” Exponential technologies will solve water shortages and the maldistribution of food, inspire personalized education, create preventive and predictive health-care systems, and provide abundant energy resources.

Three global forces will drive these technologies. First, plummeting technology costs, along with technology’s rising performance capabilities, have sparked a do-it-yourself revolution epitomized by the Maker Movement. Second, the techno-philanthropy of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Pierre Omidyar will continue to drive IT investment. Finally, innovations in energy and health will lead to a much more promising future for the “rising billion”—Diamandis’s preferred term for the world’s poorest, more commonly called the “bottom billion.”

Abundance contains some startling statistics, both positive and negative: for example, the ratio of energy input to beef output for cattle is an astounding 54 to one. And within 15 years, the cheapest, lowest-performing computers should reach the processing speed of a human brain—roughly 10 million billion calculations per second. The highlight of the book may be the 50-page reference section packed with fascinating charts and diagrams. Even the most ardent pessimist will feel browbeaten into optimism after a rundown of one gee-whiz technology after another, from robot nurses to liquid metal batteries.

Yet Diamandis is too flippant, at one point dismissing “those pesky pandemics” that Vaitheeswaran rightly takes seriously. He does include a ten-page appendix on the “dangers of the exponentials”—it highlights bioterrorism, cybercrime, and mass employment dislocation—but it feels rote and, well, like an appendix. Diamandis (cheerfully) observes elsewhere that he doesn’t do pessimism.

In Abundance, technology takes on a life apart from people; in fact, Diamandis sees human nature as the “biggest stumbling block” to the world he envisions. Humans are locked into “linear thinking in an exponential world.” We must overcome our cynicism, attention to bad news, and cognitive limitations. Diamandis seems unable to accept that humans aren’t machines. Where Vaitheeswaran sees a neck-and-neck race between development and degradation, Diamandis sees technology running far ahead. Reality will likely be closer to Vaitheeswaran’s view, if for no other reason than what historian Barbara Tuchman called “wooden-headedness.” We humans have a remarkable ability to get in our own way. This isn’t cause for pessimism, necessarily, but the road to abundance probably won’t be as smooth as Diamandis imagines.

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