Innovation: Boom Or Bust? Two Books Offer Divergent Views Of The Future

Frank Diana
4 min readMar 26, 2024

I finished reading another book. Vaclav Smil’s 2023 book, Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure, takes a critical look at our fascination with innovation. Smil argues that we often confuse invention, the creation of something new, with innovation, the successful implementation and adoption of that invention. My focus on this book comes right after finishing a somewhat similar book titled The Conservatist Futurist. Similar, in that the books both focus on innovation. However, they diverge on the topic of optimism versus pessimism.

The notion of Techno-Optimism versus Techno-Pessimism comes up a lot lately. Our recent study on the topic was unanimously positive about the future of AI. Navigating our world requires a balanced perspective, and these two books offer balance. In his book Invention and Innovation, Smil explores inventions that failed to live up to their promises, like the airship and supersonic transport. He highlights the media’s role in perpetuating unrealistic hype around new technologies, often overlooking the challenges and limitations that prevent widespread adoption.

Reviews praise the book’s clear writing and engaging examples. Smil challenges our techno-optimism, reminding us that progress isn’t guaranteed and innovation can have unintended consequences. He argues for a more grounded perspective, focusing on the importance of inventions that solve real-world problems, like improved water treatment and agriculture. Here are some key takeaways from the book:

While the future of technology is a topic brimming with both excitement and trepidation, these two recent books offer contrasting viewpoints on this complex issue. Smil takes a critical eye towards our obsession with innovation. He argues that we often mistake invention, the creation of something new, with innovation, the successful implementation of that invention. He believes our understanding of the world and our well-being rest, to an insufficiently appreciated degree, on the scientific and engineering advances made between 1867 and 1914.

Those decades saw the invention and commercialization of internal combustion engines, electricity generation and electric lights and motors, the inexpensive production of steel, the smelting of aluminum, the introduction of telephones, the first plastics, the first electronic devices, and a rapid expansion of wireless communication. We also came to understand the spread of infectious diseases and the nutritional requirements for healthy growth (above all, the need for adequate protein intake), as well as the need for indispensable plant nutrients in securing abundant and affordable food supply.

Vaclav Smil — Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure

This argument was also made by Robert J. Gordon, in his brilliant journey through the economic history of the western world. Gordon makes the argument that a special century (1870–1970) was made possible by a unique clustering of what he calls the great inventions. These inventions of the second industrial revolution significantly improved our well-being. In his book The Conservatist Futurist, author James Pethokoukis, an economic policy expert, refers to Gordon and his book several times. He laments a 50-year period post 1970 of slow growth and pessimism he calls the “Great Downshift.” This era, he argues, replaced optimism about progress with anxieties about job-stealing AI, environmental collapse, and other dystopian scenarios. His argument aligns with similar observations from Gordon.

While both Gordon and Pethokoukis point to the 1970s as a turning point, their explanations are different. In the case of the former, he believes that all the meaningful innovations were realized during the special century — and anything else pales by comparison. In the case of the latter, he believes we stalled because optimism gave way to pessimism. Pethokoukis believes this pessimism has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, hindering our ability to achieve technological breakthroughs. He highlights a history of innovation (like conquering diseases) as proof of what’s possible with the right mindset. His vision for the future includes advancements in clean energy, space exploration, and robotics.

Smil on the other hand would rather see invention and innovation focused in attainable areas that are needed most, like health, education, and income gaps. He believes that meeting our essential water, food, energy, and material needs should come first. He stresses that while we focus in these areas, we must appreciate the likelihood of unintended consequences. Smil discusses how seemingly beneficial inventions like leaded gasoline, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons resulted in unforeseen problems. He explains:

Leaded Gasoline: Added to improve engine performance, lead emissions from leaded gasoline caused widespread lead poisoning, particularly harming children’s neurological development.

DDT: A highly effective insecticide used to control malaria and other diseases, DDT’s persistence in the environment led to bioaccumulation in the food chain, harming wildlife populations like birds of prey.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): Used for refrigeration and air conditioning, CFCs were initially praised for their stability. However, scientists later discovered they damage the ozone layer, exposing the planet to harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Smil also explores the feasibility of solving some of our grand challenges — like climate change and curing cancer. By exploring the history of the war on cancer, he provides a compelling argument as to why expectations of our current efforts might be misplaced. A very pessimistic view of our capacity to address these challenges, driven by his historical analysis. This is not an either/or conversation. There are reasons for optimism and pessimism. Here are some questions to ponder:

  • Does widespread pessimism accurately reflect the current state of innovation?
  • Can we cultivate optimism while still having a realistic view of the challenges ahead?
  • How can we address the issues stemming from past inventions (like pollution) while still pursuing new advancements in areas like clean energy?

This most recent book has been added to my library. A critical look at history provides balance to the hype that sometimes clouds our vision, and reminds us of the dual paths of innovation.

Originally published at on March 26, 2024.



Frank Diana

TCS Executive focused on the rapid evolution of society and business. Fascinated by the view of the world in the next decade and beyond