The Big Question: Greatest Thing Since…

From the Fall 2011 Innovation issue

What is the most significant invention of the past decade, and what do you anticipate for the future?

In every corner of the world, innovation is the way mankind has moved forward, improving the quality, even the sustainability of life itself.  Today, as civilization moves ever more rapidly forward, it is useful to pause and examine the nature of innovation and its prospects for the future. Our panel of global experts weighs in.


Shaifali Puri: On Sharing Around the World

The last decade has seen an explosion of collective knowledge creation, sharing, and dissemination that has been enabled by Web 2.0 and mobile technology. The truly disruptive and transformative seeds of this phenomenon have been planted in the world of science and that is where, if properly cultivated, they will yield the greatest innovations in the coming decade. 

Lumped under the terms Science 2.0 and Open Science, a variety of web-based collaborative platforms—open lab notebooks, data-sharing sites—are making scientific information and data more readily accessible than ever before.  Moreover, the Internet has enabled massive data and pattern problems like protein folding, galaxy research, or classifying species to be widely broadcast to many diverse solvers, broadening the pool of available insight for researchers.

New platforms, like my own Scientists Without Borders, have emerged to enable users to post needs and openly share scientific solutions and knowledge in order to tackle problems confronting the world’s poorest people. More than ever, the role of science in solving our greatest challenges is being recognized and empowered through the web and mobile tools.

Yet, the scientific community has been far less willing to leverage the power of the web. Barriers have been built into the architecture of professional and academic science governing funding, peer-review, and credit. If the revolutionary potential of open, networked, and collaborative science is to be truly realized, it will rest as much on human and cultural innovation in the process of scientific discovery, as on technology.

Shaifali Puri is Executive Director of Scientists Without Borders, a global partnership that aims to improve the quality of life in the developing world by linking, mobilizing, and coordinating science-based activities, initiatives, and resources.


Iqbal Z. Quadir: Overcoming Obstacles

Ninety percent of people in the world’s poorest countries do not have access to banking services. Those with the greatest need lack the basic infrastructure to transfer funds from person to person. In the past decade, the proliferation of mobile phones—now approaching five billion worldwide—has introduced new possibilities. Mobile banking is spreading rapidly, and once it overcomes the obstacles of banking regulations and achieves interoperability among companies, it has the potential for a tremendous global impact.

In the next decade, micro combined heat and power systems (micro-CHP) offer a promising solution for another global shortage—energy. Reliable, quiet, and low-maintenance, micro engines hold particular potential for the 2.5 billion people who have little access to electricity. Because micro-CHPs consume fuel and produce electricity at a household level, they are able to capture the heat that central power plants simply release into the air. This increases fuel utilization from as little as 10 percent up to 80 percent. Moreover, some micro-CHPs can utilize alternative heat sources, including solar, offering versatility and environmentally friendly solutions.

Iqbal Z. Quadir is founder and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT and the founder of GrameenPhone, Bangladesh’s largest telephone company.


Giuseppe Battaglia: The Human Genome

Researchers have been determined to unravel the mysteries of the human genetic code, recognizing that if they could discover the connection between DNA’s ability to store information and control specific biological functions, they could revolutionize the practice of medicine. In 2003, such efforts led to the mapping of the Human Genome—identifying the 25,000 genes that make up our genetic blueprint.

Today, with the help of nanotechnology, researchers are rapidly approaching the realm of single-shot cures as they combine gene packets into intelligent nanoscopic carriers targeting specific parts of our body. Our understanding of genetic information will let us manipulate the cells that make up our body, which can then be reprogrammed into multi-potent stem cells able to regenerate injured parts and diseased organs. All these efforts are now close to producing new therapies and, in the next decade, will make it possible to cure diseases that have remained elusive such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

Giuseppe Battaglia is a Professor of Synthetic Biology in the Department of Biomedical Science at the University of Sheffield in Sheffield, United Kingdom.


Jürgen Schmidhuber: The Über Robot

After many millennia of more or less constant world population growth, the Haber-Bosch process, used to produce 500 million tons of artificial fertilizer per year, suddenly detonated the population explosion from 1.75 billion in 1910 to seven billion today. It remains an innovation without which billions of people would not even exist. Indirectly, it has driven everything from economic growth to energy consumption to pollution to politics.

In recent decades, however, we saw the ignition of a new kind of population explosion. The number of robots has jumped from 30,000 in 1980 to one million in 2002. Still overshadowed by the incredible growth of the Web, robots sit far below our radar. But once robot brains no longer have to be pre-programmed and are able to quickly learn to solve a range of problems by themselves, the robot population will rapidly overtake the human one. The most important innovation of the past decade is the outline for universal artificial intelligence that can indeed learn to solve arbitrary problems through the creative use of continually growing, but always limited, experience.

Since raw computing power is still increasing by a factor of 100 to 1,000 every decade, hardware with more than brain-like computational power should become available soon. Blueprints for self-improving creative software already exist and will change our society and our planet in unfathomable ways.

Jürgen Schmidhuber is a computer scientist and artist, co-director of the Swiss AI Lab IDSIA in Lugano and professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Lugano. His ultimate ambition is to build a scientist better than himself.


Arcot Desai Narasimhalu: A Social Platform

Local social networks have existed for centuries, but the number of connections an individual could make and the speed with which ideas could be spread were limited by space and time. Only within the last decade, when social networks first took to cyberspace, have we discovered the ability to transcend those constraints. Armed with Facebook and MySpace, people from opposite ends of the world can now create, discover, and collaborate at rates unforeseen in human history.

Social networks have enabled large firms to adopt agile innovation management approaches to product and service development. Firms can now use social networks and crowd sourcing technology to engage their current and potential customers in order to better understand their needs.

The next decade will give rise to new technologies that will capture the tacit behavior of customers. Such behavior will not only be registered by individuals when they interact with others, but also by various new devices that will capture the behavior of customers across all networks, allowing the creation of a more complete consumer profile. These new devices will collect the now fragmented customer data in a more centralized and useful manner—at supermarkets and department stores, entertainment and wellness centers—a Utopian goal of capturing and understanding the tacit needs of customers for future product and service innovations.

Arcot Desai Narasimhalu is director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Singapore Management University.


Alexander Bard: Kickstarting a Revolution

Facebook was by far the most important innovation of the 2000s. By putting photography next to email, Facebook kickstarted a social media revolution of previously unimaginable magnitude. To term the phenomenon “social media” totally misses the point. This is the Internet. It was always about transforming connections between people into one never-ending loop of all mankind.

For good or bad, the greatest innovation in the next decade will be the logical reaction against the massiveness of Facebook. How do we domesticate and control the hydra we have just awakened? The key word here is imploitation rather than exploitation. How do we organize our lives through technology to make ourselves available to only those we know, or want to know?

What awaits us is nothing less than the explosive growth of digital gated communities. The price we pay for the creation of these walls is the greatest class-society ever to come into existence: Netocrats, the social monsters who everybody wants to know, versus Consumtarians, the social trolls who nobody wants to know. The hard-to-face reality is that most people on the planet do not want to know you. Whoever gets this right will win, and it is not likely going to be Facebook. Facebook is the Internet for the masses, next is the Internet adapted to the elite.

Alexander Bard, artist and record producer ( is an internet sociologist and co-author, with Jan Söderqvist, of the trilogy Netocracy, The Global Empire, and The Body Machines.


Ahmed Abdel Latif: Open Innovation

A growing number of companies and organizations are shifting their model of innovation. Once internally focused and largely closed to the outside flow of ideas and technologies, they have increasingly opened themselves to an infinite source of knowledge and inspiration to enhance their competitiveness and pursue new avenues for growth. Open innovation can be a more profitable way to innovate, because it can reduce costs, accelerate commercialization of products and services, and most importantly, create new revenue sources. 

The last decade has witnessed iconic companies becoming leaders in the open innovation economy—IBM, with its embrace of the open source software Linux, and Nike with the creation of GreenXchange, aimed at accelerating sustainable innovation through the sharing of intellectual property. Because it involves innovating outside the firm’s and the nation’s normal boundaries, open innovation also redraws the global innovation landscape.

Take Masdar—a project in Abu Dhabi. Its core is a planned city relying entirely on solar and other renewable energy sources. Despite its small size (2.3 square miles) and expected population (40,000), it aims to set a precedent for future carbon neutral settlements, delivering high quality living with the lowest possible ecological footprint. A 10 megawatt solar photovoltaic plant is already operational—the largest such plant in the Middle East.

With the construction of the world’s most sustainable buildings, the city needs to push forward a whole set of new energy efficient technologies. In Masdar, a host of innovations will be packed into a very small space.

Ahmed Abdel Latif is Senior Program Manager for Intellectual Property and Technology at the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva. 


Frederick Balagaddé: Escape From Reality

In the future, historians may see the most important innovation of the previous decade as the migration of artificial intelligence from research labs to everyday life. Think “cleaning robots” or even more recently, Watson, the computer champion on Jeopardy! While energy should be the most important area for innovation during the next decade, current budgets for developing renewables, unfortunately, are dwarfed by investments in the status quo.

It is probably safe to expect that people will immerse themselves ever more deeply into games, role-playing, and alternate realities. After all, this is the key to Facebook’s remarkable business model. Other innovations will simply superimpose a game layer on top of real life with sensors detecting human behavior, rewarding points for real world activities like recycling, exercising, and good driving. 

As simulations advance to engage our senses more accurately, the boundary between the real and virtual will blur beyond recognition. The mixed reality of robotic telepresence could help establish immersive videoconferencing as a universal medium for communication, allowing us to bridge national boundaries and gain intimate awareness of faraway events.

Frederick Balagaddé of Uganda is a TED Senior Fellow and an analyst for Strategic Business Insights in California. He is co-inventor of the microchemostat, a medical diagnostic chip.


—Compiled by Harry W. S. Lee and Cameron S. Parsons

[Photo: Matt Burns]

(Downloadable PDFs of individual World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGE.)

Related posts