Leader comment: Scotland must help reinvent the modern world

As the world turns, Scotland must ensure its education system and businesses move with it.
Adam Smith's economic theories played a key role in the creation of the modern worldAdam Smith's economic theories played a key role in the creation of the modern world
Adam Smith's economic theories played a key role in the creation of the modern world

In 2001, the American historian Arthur Herman published a best-selling book called “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” with the subtitle “The True Story of How Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It”.

Critics rightly suggested the book’s claims were “overblown”, but what was noticeable was that Herman focused on the Scottish Enlightenment, highlighting the roles played by figures such as economist Adam Smith, architect Robert Adam and engineer Thomas Telford. If Scotland had a claim to greatness, it was in the past.

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The world now stands at the crossroads of a new industrial revolution, one that will have profound implications for the way we live our lives. The rise of artificial intelligence will see robots take over many jobs, while the transition from an economy built on coal, oil and gas to one powered by the sun, wind and sea is another earth-shattering development.

But there are many problems to be overcome on the way to this very different future.

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While the falling cost of renewable energy is increasingly making it the economic choice for the production of electricity, the source of fuel for heating and transport remains largely a fossil-based one.

In Norway, where the taxation system means that electric cars are cheaper to buy as well as cheaper to run, hybrid and electric vehicles make up more than half of all new sales. But the rest of the world lags far behind – and for good reason.

Electric cars are significantly more expensive, have a shorter range than provided by a full tank of petrol, and take much longer to recharge than is currently spent filling up at a service station.

However, a team of scientists led by Glasgow University’s Professor Leroy Cronin appears to have found a way to fix the latter problem by creating a revolutionary new battery that can be recharged in about the same time as it takes to refuel a petrol car.

It is a development that may be surpassed by another in the same field, but could also potentially remove a barrier on the path to progress. Such inventions show the importance of education but also the need for businesses to operate in an environment that encourages investment in new ideas. Scots undoubtedly played a considerable role in making the current world and we should strive to take part in its reinvention.