If we are ever to improve upon our relationship with ourselves, each other and the natural world, systems and infrastructures will have to be developed to accommodate these changes. Interactions between societies and species are complicated by incredible complexity, and mounting stresses on resources and other forms of capital only emphasise the need for change. Technological innovation will have to play a massive role in taking the global society to an era of sustainability. Nevertheless, as much as we will have to rely on technology to take us to this new era, we will also be dependent on a stable and growing global economy that can support the necessary investments in research and development needed to build and distribute these necessities.
Each day we are introduced to breakthrough discoveries and tools that will shape our world and dictate our future. Something as simple as a cellphone has connected us in ways we could never have imagined. The very idea of communication, of privacy, is rapidly evolving with each new upgrade. What can’t you do on a smart phone? And whilst the modern world is still dominated by the manifesto of ‘bigger, better, faster’, business leaders, scientists, and young entrepreneurs are combining creativity and concern to come up with technological solutions that can turn our socio-ecological crises into stories of success. Our idealism may not be so far-fetched after all, but an idealistic imagining requires and idealistic setting.
As much as society has become ever-more technologically-engaged and orientated, we have also become targets of the global economy’s mood-swing irrationality. A slump in the system – be it regional or recessionary – can scare the market into the corner, and stall any potentiality of technological innovations. For example, there is an app for almost everything, but the hi-tech supporting devices are unaffordable to the majority of populations, especially in developing countries. What is also true, however, is that two of the world’s strongest economies are distinguishing themselves as leaders in green tech. Germany boasts an impressive 20% roll-out of renewable energy in all its electricity produced, and China could see all its electricity demands met with wind power by 2030.
The relationship between technology and the economy is not as coincidental as one might think. Carlota Perez, the Venezuelan and neo-Schumpeterian economist, reveals the link between technological innovation and financial dynamics in her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: the Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. She talks about ‘techno-economic paradigm shifts’; how socio-technological change is accompanied by economic business cycles. These shifts begin with a period of infrastructure installation, which markets warm to, and follow with a period of infrastructure deployment, where the economic and social benefits are realised. The ups and downs of the economy represent the births and bursts of technological bubbles –continuous innovation and 'creative destruction’. When the bubbles burst, the installation of one techno-economic paradigm begins to overlap the deployment of another.
Once this theory is integrated with Marina Fischer-Kowalski’s studies on socio-ecological regimes, one understands that these continuous technological revolutions have been occurring throughout our modern society’s history. The age of the steam engine saw Britain build an empire; the age of the automobile saw the United States of America become a superpower; and the age of the computer has seen the Four Asian Tigers lead the third wave of democracy and post-industrialisation. In fact, one can even attach the recent financial crises to the infrastructure deployment of the information technology and telecommunications cycle – the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The hope is that the next period of socio-technical change will demonstrate an age of sustainability. The technological innovations of this period are already on the market – smart-grid greentech and bioelectronics.
What is worrisome, however, is the ‘double bubble’ – the boom and busts of internet mania and easy liquidity, which the world experienced only too recently. Why have there been two consecutive bubbles burst and how does this affect the deployment of ICT innovations? Perez assigns these anomalies to historical similarities in how the market adapts to technological revolutions. Simple enough, but then how can Germany and China still prosper and leave impoverished nations unable to afford an iPad? In theory, these financial dynamics imply the end of the infrastructure installation phase and the beginning for the deployment phase, but our economy doesn’t look nearly healthy enough to maintain a socio-technical transition.
Part of the reasoning, of course, has to do with a stable economy that can support a market for these technological innovations. However, capable and effective public institutions and governments are not to be overlooked. Whilst America struggles to properly regulate banks and boost consumer confidence in its own economy, Germany and China’s strategic investment in research and development have made them financially independent enough to take control of their own economic futures, regardless of the United States’ influence on the global economy. Another aspect is the scarcity of renewable resources. Previous ‘techno-economic paradigm shifts’ have been dependent on the fallacy of an infinite amount of fossil fuels, like oil. As these resources run dry, economies will find it much more difficult to sustain growth and prosperity. So, to imagine a future era of sustainability for a globalised society, a strong-willed government is also needed to guide us through this next phase of the technological revolution. Not only must an economy be supported that can introduce and distribute technological innovations, but recognition must additionally be made that fossil fuel exploitation cannot continue indefinitely. “Investors know resource efficiency going to be a safe growth sector but lack necessary political framework,” says Dimitri Zanghelis.
Thankfully, there seems to be an increasing interest in aligning the importance of technological innovation, with a healthy economy and a sustainable future. John Elkington’s new book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, discusses the trap we’re in – the reoccurrence of recessions –and views it as ideal time to initiate the next socio-ecological regime. This will entail what he calls. ‘Breakthrough Capitalism’. Jeremy Rifkin’s work on the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ and the ‘energy internet’ has a comparable intricate, yet positive outlook on our future. Therefore, whether the ‘double bubble’ hysteria is as Perez says, “essentially the equivalent to 1929”, or a seriously systemic mess caused by incompetent governments, the interlinking relationship between technology, the economy and sustainability has never been more clear.
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