Most significant innovations that have led to major societal changes have been identified and fast-tracked by governments. This is especially so if the benefits are not directly commercially valuable.
Unfortunately the road to oblivion is littered with good ideas. Perhaps, as a society, we assume that because we are able to determine what is best, we assume that best will triumph. This belief may hold true in the laboratory, but it quickly breaks down in the world of powerful business and politics. For ideas and innovations to succeed the support of the business and political realms is critical — they must feel these innovations are good for them. In general a 'good' thing must either do something that could not be done before, or do what can already be done a lot better. And to judge that we usually use price.
When an innovation opens up new horizons, its perception as good is almost universal. The desktop computer is a good thing, because there was no equivalent before it. Cheap air travel is a good thing because it opened up a world of new possibilities for people, industry and business. The World Wide Web is a good thing, again because it opens up a whole new space.
However, most profound innovations in our modern life have largely been identified and had their development assisted in some way by governments, often the military. In the last century, modern civil aviation followed massive military spending during the Second World War, which developed low-cost, reliable, high-capacity aeroplanes. The computer industry is again a product of the Second World War, and massive US government spending thereafter; now US-born companies dominate the global information technology (IT) economy. The nuclear industry is another example. Indeed, its civil power application faltered in both the US and the European Union (EU) in liberalized markets.
Today we see governments fast-tracking genetics, nanotechnology and indeed renewable energy. We do not see those governments who intend to capture a new market standing by and saying, 'If it's a good idea let it sink or swim.' There is a recognition that industrial economies are built on innovation, and so we see certain countries grasping renewable energy technologies and seeking to establish their place in a large future market. It comes as no surprise that it is the 'innovation' economies that are leading the way.
Although there may be almost universal agreement that renewable energy is a good idea, this agreement is not sufficient to foster a substantial industry. For specific renewable energy technologies to succeed, pointed and well-conceived government intervention is required. This intervention mainly takes the form of legislation.
Source: EPIA (2005)
Figure 2.3 The race to lead the global solar electric market; the countries who have built their economies on innovation are leading the way
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