For producing 750 lumens, we used to turn on a 60W incandescent light bulb. Due to its reinvention as LED, we need to spend just 10W to get the same brightness. This is our latent potential to have a cleaner environment through reinvention. Data indicate that our environment has been degrading since the first industrial revolution. The major underlying causes have been energy generation out of the burning of fossil fuels, natural resource extraction, and industrial activities. But why did we not have such concern in the preindustrial age? To drive economic prosperity, science has been scaling up environmental degradation. Because of science, we have been rapidly scaling up the production of wealth from natural resources. Hence, science for the environment and economic prosperity is a contentious issue.
South Asian cities are suffering from severe degradation of air quality. Dhaka is among the most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution is responsible for the premature deaths of 2 million people every year in India alone. Studies suggest that almost 8 million people die prematurely due to fossil fuel emissions. Industry and automobiles are significant sources of air pollution with their 51 percent and 27 percent contributions, respectively. Despite it, we are after producing an increasing number of automobiles reaching 92 million in 2021, which is expected to reach 127 million by 2030.
Power generation is another source of air pollution and climate change effect. Electricity coming from burning fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas, has the second-largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Another primary concern is growing e-waste. It has been growing at almost 3 to 4 percent per year, reaching over 50 million tons in 2020.
Contrast encourages pondering
Despite the continued degradation of the environment, our life expectancy has jumped from around 46 in 1950 to above 72 in 2021. During the last 60 years, global per capita GDP has grown from $445 to above $10,000, and the population has grown from 2 billion in 1927 to 7.9 billion in 2021. What is the lesson from such contrast?
The invention, Scale-up, and Reinvention—at the root of science for the environment and economic prosperity
Human beings are after finding better means of getting jobs done at less cost while offering more convenience. This is our core ability to create more wealth, improve the quality of living standards and extend life expectancy. To get our jobs done better, we gather knowledge and invent means, as products and processes. We keep gathering knowledge through scientific investigation to scale up our inventions. As a result, our consumption of natural resources keeps growing, and so does environmental degradation. Does it mean that this trend will continue, making our development progression unsustainable?
Fortunately, NO. Human beings are intelligent. They keep discovering scientific knowledge. In addition to advancing existing inventions in an incremental manner, they succeed in inventing new technology core to reinvent existing inventions and invent new ones. Consequentially, they succeed in having reinventions to get jobs done far better than before while consuming fewer resources and causing less harm to the environment. For example, incandescent light bulbs waste as high as 85 percent energy. In its first reinvention, CFL wastes far less. And its recent reinvention version, LED light bulb, uses up to 85% less energy than incandescent bulbs. The underlying force of reducing energy wastage, and causing less harm to the environment, is science. For example, although Edison invented the light bulb through 10,000 experiments, its reinvention as LED needed Nobel prize-winning scientific discovery.
There are many such examples, such as LCD Television, Electric Vehicle, Wind Energy, Digital Cameras, and many more. Hence, we need more science to scale up inventions and reinventions for producing more wealth while causing less harm to the environment.
How do we leverage science to create wealth and jobs for driving economic prosperity?
Although science has been at the core of driving inventions, innovations, and economic prosperity, there is no natural correlation between the science base and job creation. For this reason, improving science or STEM indicators like the number of graduates, publications, patents, R&D investment, and scientists do not proportionately contribute to the economic prosperity of a nation.
For example, for more than 70 years, we have been studying natural sciences like Physics. Developing countries, like Bangladesh, has produced many bright STEM graduates. But what are these graduates doing? Are they engaged in producing scientific knowledge and converting it into ideas for improving products and processes and reducing environmental impact? Are we trading those ideas in the global market at a profit? If not, how are we leveraging our growing science graduates to address environmental issues and drive economic prosperity?
Does it mean that we need to invest more in R&D? If we do so, that will produce publications and even patents. But how will we drive economic prosperity if we do not succeed in rolling out that knowledge and patent base as product and process features at a profit?
Winning global innovation competition out of the interest in science
In this globally connected competitive market, there is no natural correlation between the science base of a nation and its ability to create wealth and jobs. There has been a global innovation race in offering higher quality products at less cost. To succeed in creating wealth out of our base of science and ideas, we need to win the global competition. Through this winning, we need to migrate the epicenter of innovation of targeted products. For example, America’s the light bulb inventing company GE is no longer a global light bulb leader; because Japanese Nichia has taken over through its reinvention as LED. This should be the target of our interest in Science—winning the global reinvention race for offering higher quality products at less cost while causing less harm to the environment.
Inventions Evolve in Episodic Manner giving us hope for Science for Environment and Economic Prosperity
Involving scientific discoveries or tinkering, inventions inevitably emerge in primitive form. In the beginning, they neither harm the environment nor do they drive economic prosperity. They keep evolving through a flow of ideas, creating the demand for continued scientific knowledge. Along with the maturity, inventions keep getting eligible in helping us get jobs done better. Hence, along with consumption, environmental harm and economic prosperity keep going up. Eventually, inventions reach saturation, forming an S-curve-like lifecycle. As mentioned, scientific discoverers empower us to invent new technology cores and reinvent existing mature products. But those reinventions emerge as inferior alternatives. Hence, the journey restarts to keep evolving reinvention waves, turning them into creative destruction forces to mature products having a more extensive material and energy footprint. And this process continues, giving an episodic nature to the evolution of inventions.
Although science for the environment and economic prosperity appears to be a contentious issue. But the episodic evolution of inventions is our core strength in creating increasing wealth from depleting resources while causing less harm to the environment. To leverage it, we need more science; but that is not enough. We need to win the global race of innovation competition to leverage it. Hence, we need to understand the global innovation dynamics and figure out how to turn science competence into economic prosperity and a better environment. In addition to expanding education and research in science, we also need fresh thinking about policy issues for addressing environmental and economic prosperity issues by leveraging science. The focus should be on creating both supply and demand of science, understanding global innovation dynamics, and creating capacity for winning the global innovation race through reinvention.