Invention and Innovation. A Brief History of Hype and Failure

“This book is a reminder of the world as it is, not the world of exaggerated claims or, even worse, the imaginary world of indefensible fantasies,” writes scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil in Invention and Innovation. A Brief History of Hype and Failure, an MIT Press publication.

The book looks at the fate of inventions of the past 150 years in order to have us consider the promises surrounding our techno-enabled future with caution, if not with a healthy dose of scepticism. Disappointments, failings and mistakes that occurred in the past are likely to be repeated in the future, Smil believes.

The scientist explains how past inventions that solved a critical problem and were commercialised on a global scale turned out to be so harmful to both humans and the environment that they were eventually banned. Perfect cases in point: DDT and tetraethyl lead in gasoline. Another category of inventions analysed in the book are the ones that never gained the domination they aspired to. Airships for affordable long-distance air transport and supersonic aircraft for speedy intercontinental trips are examples of disappointing inventions. That is where I learnt how exhausting trans- or intercontinental travels were in the early 20th century: it took three stops and more than fifteen hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles, and you’d need eight days and twenty-two layovers for the London-Singapore link.

The ITER fusion reactor will contain the world’s largest magnet, which stands vertically in the centre of this illustration. Image: ITER, via

Michael Joseph Owens, Ten Arm Owens Automatic Bottle Machine, c.?1913. Photo by Lewis Hine

And then there are the inventions we are still waiting for, such as the ever-elusive cure for cancer or the less-discussed nitrogen-fixing cereal plants. If wheat, rice, corn and sorghum could act as legumes and secure most of their nitrogen requirements by symbiosis with bacteria rather than needing heavy doses of synthetic fertilisers, we would not only increase the global grain harvests but also be able to save energy and reduce drastically environmental pollution.

The Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg on fire at the mooring mast of Lakehurst (United States of America) 6 May 1937. Photo: Sam Shere

Dragon Dream ML866 and Tustin Hangar, 2013. Image: Parkhannah

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) entering New York harbour following Operation Sunshine, 1958. Photo: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy Arctic Submarine Laboratory

The most interesting part of the book is the final one, where Smil denounces the inflated rhetoric that is often accompanying the techno-scientific “solutions” to every technical, environmental or social problem, no matter how vast and complex. News media play a non-negligible part in this cult of the technofix, by shunning nuances, uncritically relaying false promises and describing new inventions as “around the corner”, “disruptive” or “transformative”.

Analysing the myth of ever-faster innovations, the author explains that it is based on the mistaken impression that the rapid exponential advances of solid-state electronics can be applied to nearly all other aspects of our lives: from crop yields to efficiency gains in energy uses, from transportation speeds to gains in healthy longevity. Even AI, which efficiency seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, still hasn’t delivered diagnoses in every medical area, autonomous weapons on all battlefields and autonomous cars in our streets. That is because modern discourse is generally averse to engaging with uncontrollable complexities and unpredictable outcomes.

Perhaps more importantly, the book is also about the importance of getting our priorities right. We’re not going to stop inventing new materials, products, infrastructures and procedures, the author argues. We can’t always control failures stemming from lack of experience, hidden (on purpose or not) externalities, sheer human biases and unanticipated challenges either. We could, however, agree on “the most desirable items based on the two overriding needs: to improve the fundamentals required for a dignified life of the world’s population, and to do so without excessive impacts on the biosphere.” Of course, it is unlikely that a gadget or potion is going to help us reach that goal tomorrow. And that’s the problem with innovation that is literally “life-changing”: it is almost never as immediate and as sexy as we’ve been led to believe.

If I had to sum up my opinion about the book in a couple of lines it would be that the last section, the one about the unfulfilled promises and the misunderstanding surrounding innovations today, is by far the most compelling one. I only wish journalists, influencers, designers and engineers will read it too.

Related stories: Paleo-energy: a counter-history of energy, AI in the Wild. Sustainability in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Disnovation, an inquiry into the mechanics and rhetoric of innovation, Can technology bring back long-lost nature?


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Janardhan Pokala : In A Chat With A Multi-Disciplinary Creative Director

Janardhan Pokala is a multi-disciplinary Creative Director based out of Chennai. With his primary practice firmly rooted in copywriting and brand strategy, he helps some of the world’s most well-known brands navigate, create and lead meaningful change.

Why are you into Brand Building?
I’ve always been passionate about understanding people’s behaviour – why they act a certain way, what makes them tick and things of that nature. 10 years ago, when I got the opportunity to use that understanding to solve complex business challenges daily, I jumped at it and haven’t looked back ever since.

Did you attend school for fine art or design or communications?
No. Like most people in India, I graduated with an engineering degree.

You have worked for some very diverse and interesting places. Can you tell you something about this journey.
If I’m being honest, what I am today is a result of these diverse experiences. Adwants gave me the space to sharpen my craft and mature as a creative. Be Positive 24 made me reevaluate my benchmarks and step out of my comfort zone every so often. And ampersand taught me the importance of timely action.

Throughout my career, I was fortunate enough to work with some of the most accomplished leaders in the industry. And sharing a work desk with them meant learning from their experiences instead of making my own mistakes every single time.

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Do you think brands whose advertising wins awards, do well in the market?
Not always. Burger King is one of the most awarded brands in the world, but their market share reflects a different picture. At the same time, brands like Apple and Nike have managed to make award-winning work work for them.

While I do not believe in awards, I do believe that they play a crucial role in getting good work discovered and the people who created it recognised. Beyond that, I don’t think one is, in any way, dependent on the other.

Were there any particular role models for you when you grew up?
Quite the opposite. I grew up watching a lot of poorly-written films and ads being made in our country. And I told myself – I’ll never create one of those.

Who was the most influential personality on your career in brand building?
Without a doubt – Bill Bernbach, Paula Scher and Rory Sutherland. Bernbach’s approach to advertising, Paula’s principles on graphic design and Rory’s views on behavioural economics have pretty much shaped my career.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
From the world around me! That’s why I never allow my creatives to wear headphones inside the office. When we tune out, we miss so much of what could potentially become inspiring work.

Tell us something about the work environment at Engadgetly Inc.
Having worked in agency settings for nearly a decade, I didn’t know what to expect of Engagedly. To my surprise, the work culture has been one of the best things about the organisation. Very open, friendly and supportive.

Do you have any kind of a program to nurture and train young talent?
A mentorship programme is in the works. More on that very soon!

What about new and young filmmakers/photographers? Do you consciously keep looking for newer talent and try someone completely new?
All the time. As a creative, I’m always looking for new ways to solve old problems. And working with someone new almost always opens up so many possibilities.

What is your typical brief like?
No two briefs are the same. But most of the time, clients reach out to me because they’ve tried something, and it didn’t work. So they want a fresh and more refined approach to their brand.

Essentially, brand transformation.

What advice do you have for aspiring creative professionals?
Understand what good work is. Develop a thicker skin and never settle – even when your agency leaders ask you to compromise. Especially then.

What is your dream project?
Any brief that has the potential to have a positive impact on people beyond just monetary measures is a dream project for me.

Mac or PC?
Mac, all the way.

Who would you like to take out for dinner?
Marshall Mathers. His music has had a profound impact on my life, and his journey has been one of my biggest inspirations.

What’s on your iPod? Spotify?
Mostly hip hop – Eminem, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, NF and some old-school artists like Tupac, Nas and Biggie. And some classical music, of course.

What’s your Twitter Handle? Instagram?
I don’t use Twitter much. You can follow me on Instagram @janardhanpokala

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