Peter Jones: All the food that’s fit to print
IN times of such rapid change, unconventional thought is needed for technological progress and economic growth, writes Peter Jones
Instead of getting a pizza from the delivery guy, could you just print one out? Is Scotland, far from being a macho country, actually a gay creation? Does having lots of oil guarantee that you have loo paper?
Bizarre questions, you may say: what has this man been drinking? Well, nothing much more than a decent French red shared with an American friend who provoked in me an interesting insight. It is that though economic times, and not just the climate, seem rather frozen just now, actually a great deal of change is happening. This change could be rather dramatic, with some countries, companies, and people being big winners and others being big losers.
It’s happened before. The 1930s Depression was actually a time of great creativity. Mass transport – by bus and train – arrived, making it easy for people living in the suburbs to get to the city centre and go shopping. Most of the big department stores date from that time and so does retailing as a big part of our economy. The lesson from then is that now is the time to be creative, to think unconventionally, to imagine the impossible and how to make it possible.
The third question in the opening paragraph illustrates the dangers of thinking conventionally. It comes from Venezuela where the hugely popular leftist government of the late Hugo Chavez is now being perpetuated under Nicolas Maduro, elected president in April. Mr Maduro has vowed to continue Mr Chavez’s “21st century socialism” which nationalised much of Venezuela’s oil industry and used much of the wealth to pay for bringing health, education, and welfare programmes to the country’s poor people.
The poor became less poor, but other problems are piling up. Inflation is running at 25 per cent, impoverishing the poor again. So Mr Maduro introduced price controls – which were popular – but created another problem because it made the manufacture of certain things uneconomic. So the country ran out of toilet paper and last week the Venezuelan government decided to spend $79 million (£52m) on importing 39 million loo rolls, plus toothpaste and soap. What a humiliating place for an oil-rich country to be in.
Nationalist readers may presume that I am about to make sarcastic remarks about an independent Scotland. I’m not, save to note that oil wealth is no guarantee that everyone becomes better off. If a government makes the wrong decisions, everyone can be worse off.
No, unconventional thought is what is needed now, for progress and economic growth does not mainly come from new inventions. Some innovations do spark remarkable growth – such as the internal combustion engine and the motor car – and there are some exciting discoveries around. One such is graphene, a carbon material just one atom thick discovered by scientists at Manchester University. It promises to deliver a quantum leap in the efficiency of many electronic devices and the lightness of things ranging from wind turbine blades to aeroplanes.
But it is the adaption of known technologies, borrowing them from one field to use them in another, which is responsible for most growth. An example is the 3-D printer. This infant technology is essentially a device which can be programmed to spray layer upon layer of a plastic powder and glue to build up a solid object.
Unhappily, it is already being used in America to make guns. Perhaps more happily, Nasa has just commissioned a research project to see if, instead of plastic powder, food ingredients could be used in dust form to print out meals for astronauts travelling to Mars.
The 1960s space race gave us, not the non-stick frying pan (Teflon was invented 30 years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and Tefal, a French company, was first to make non-stick cookware ten years before that historic day) but the integrated circuit board, vital for the first personal computers and every electronic device we now use. Might Nasa now give us the printable pizza?
Add this kind of technology jump from one field to another, and the increasing speed with which it occurs, then, argues Jim Carroll, an American future trends predictor who is much in demand at corporate and other conferences, change is going to be eye-poppingly fast.
We have all become used to massive and rapid change in the electronics we use – mobile phones have become hand-held multi-purpose gadgets while the way we collect, view and use information, music, TV, films, is an aeon away from what it was even a few years ago, and the price of gadgetry keeps falling.
This is all based on Moore’s Law, which says that the processing power of a computer chip doubles every 18 months while its cost halves over the same period. He argues: “Going forward, every single industry, from health care to agriculture to insurance and banking, will find out that change will start to come at the speed of Moore’s law — a speed of change that is much faster than they are used to.”
Imagine if your car insurance premiums were based on how well and safely you drive your car. It is possible with GPS technology. Imagine if you went to hospital, not to get cured of a sickness, but to stop the sickness occurring. It is possible with genomic medicine.
Even history is changing. The Roman emperor Hadrian arguably was first to define what we now regard as Scotland by building the eponymous wall, a clear statement that the people to the north are different. An exhibition now on at the British Museum examining the hitherto ignored role of lesbian and gay people in history presents convincing evidence that Hadrian, who did have a wife and children, was in fact gay. So, at a time when Scotland is contemplating a different constitutional future, its past has become, quite unexpectedly, a little bit different. And whatever the constitutional future, the real challenge and opportunity for all Scots is how we sink or swim in the tidal wave of economic change that is already on the horizon.