This week, some great and wonderful news from the world of science was announced.
Scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Livermore in California revealed that they had pointed 192 laser beams at a tiny fuel pellet in a nuclear fusion reactor and managed, for the first time ever, to produce slightly more energy than the lasers put in.
That is a very big breakthrough, the culmination of over 50 years of work to try and recreate the nuclear reaction that generates energy at the centre of the sun. If this reaction can be scaled up massively, we have a crack at developing an endless supply of clean, safe energy. That’s exactly what the world needs. But it is a massive technical challenge to make it viable. Decades of work are likely still ahead and it may yet prove to be unachievable.
But it was nevertheless one of those Eureka! moments we all love. The last one was the rapid development of an effective mRNA vaccine to tackle Covid-19. Despite vaccines typically taking at least four years to develop, the US Warpspeed programme saw it delivered in under 18 months. Millions of lives were saved as a result.
If we collectively went Warp Speed on fusion power, spending the billions needed for additional R&D and engineering, we might be able to make it a reality within a couple of decades.
The eureka myth
But as Derek Thompson writes in this fascinating piece in the latest issue of The Atlantic, too often the big breakthroughs are failing to translate into tangible benefits for humanity, and he is taking aim squarely at the US in his criticism.
“In theory, the values of progress form the core of American national identity,” he writes.
“In the past few decades, however, progress has faltered—and faith in it has curdled. Technological progress has stagnated, especially in the non virtual world. So have real incomes. Life expectancy has been falling in recent years,” he adds.
“What went wrong?” Thompson asks. “There are many answers, but one is that we have become too enthralled by the eureka myth and, more to the point, too inattentive to all the things that must follow a eureka moment.”
The American innovation that spurred so much progress during the 20th century is fizzling out in a morass of bureaucratic malaise, stymied by a lack of trust in the societal institutions tasked with translating great breakthroughs into services, treatments and technologies that make a difference to people’s lives.
Reflecting on 2022, I can’t help feeling that we’ve been infected with the same malaise. Our politicians seek progress, in improving housing, healthcare and public transport, on tackling climate change and “building back better” after the pandemic. But have we really made much progress on any front?
Health reforms, Three Waters, public housing, transport mode shift. We generally agree on the need for these things. Disagreement over how they are implemented is what is holding us back.
A matter of trust
We already have the technology available to switch to renewable energy, deliver data-driven insights to improve the health of every New Zealand and churn out pre-fabricated houses to ease the pressure on first-home buyers and renters. But we are bogged down on many fronts. The election next year may well see a change of government and a resetting of priorities. Policies will be cancelled, and strategies rewritten. Would that bring progress, or more spinning of the wheels?
Our problem is not a lack of trust, which Thompson says is “in free fall” in the US.
“In a country where people don’t trust the government to be honest, or businesses to be ethical, or members of the opposite party to respect the rule of law, it is hard to build anything quickly and effectively—or, for that matter, anything that lasts.”
Trust in the government, by most measures, is actually very high here, even after the anger over vaccine mandates and the occupation of the Parliament grounds earlier this year. Many farmers are distrustful of the government’s plans to make them pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.
And we often do have trust issues when it comes to the application of technology. We’ll struggle to achieve our 2050 Predator Free goal without a genetic solution. We can’t properly tackle health inequities without joining up important sources of data across government.
Implementation is everything
We talk around these issues, highlighting the need for “social licence” and public engagement. But we make glacial progress on them. So many people I talk to in government, both local and central, are frustrated. They are involved in expensive programmes that are behind schedule, failing to deliver, or are no longer fit for purpose. They don’t feel like they are making any progress towards the lofty goals they’ve been set.
Our real problem is more prosaic than what Thompson sees in the US. We just struggle to get anything done, a trait that sees Jacinda Ardern’s “transformative” government at threat of being voted out of office next year.
The big ideas, the breakthrough inventions, need to be followed by lengthy and complex processes of implementation. That’s where the rubber hits the road and too often we are burning out in a cloud of smoke.
“Culture is the true last-mile problem of progress,” writes Thompson. “It doesn’t matter what you discover or invent if people are unwilling to accept it.”
So next year I’ll be paying less attention to the shiny, new stuff from the world of tech, and more on how to free up the bottlenecks that are preventing progress. How to foster a culture that promotes progress, in what is likely to be a tough year for many.
In the meantime, we have La Nina to thank for some balmy weather and the beach beckons. Thanks for reading Tech Blog this year and we look forward to returning from January 23.
Meri Kirihimete me te Hape Nū Ia! (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!)