Existential angst and a wave of innovation

Updated: 2012-03-14 08:08

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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Existential angst and a wave of innovation

The book, The Sixth Wave: How to Succeed in a Resource Limited World, by James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady, points to the emergence of an exciting new wave of innovation.

There is a clear pattern in modern history of five waves of innovation. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, each of these waves has transformed society, economies and industry. The fifth wave was communications technology, but its peak is over and a new wave of innovation is emerging driven by the need to sustain resources. China in particular, must ride the crest of this wave.

China was not at the forefront of the previous five waves of innovation. But its rapid economic growth of the past three decades has benefited from the technologies of these previous waves.

However great the achievements of this economic growth, they have nonetheless made ever-greater demands on resources and been at an ever-increasing cost to the environment. With the further expansion of urbanization, which is necessary for this country to improve the quality of life of the majority of its residents, the demand for resources will undoubtedly grow.

Therefore the government must have not only a short-term strategy to deal with the current economic and social problems, but also a long-term strategy to make development more sustainable.

A sense of anxiety, what we Chinese call youhuan yishi, should be ingrained in the awareness of the country's decision-makers when they make plans for the future.

Boosting domestic consumption has been identified as the primary means of driving the country's economic growth now that its export-oriented processing industry is shrinking. But unless the efficiency of resources is raised considerably, this rapid increase in consumption may turn out to be a disaster.

Look at the country's energy situation. It failed to meet its target of reducing energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 3.5 percent in the year 2011 - the reduction was only 2.01 percent - and 348 million tons of standard coal were consumed in 2011, an increase of about 7 percent over the previous year. If energy consumption increases by the same percentage every year, it will double by the year 2020.

At the same time, the government input in energy saving technology has decreased from 20 billion yuan (about $3 billion) in 2009 to 15 billion yuan in 2011. The input will be 1.6 billion yuan in 2012.

In addition, most of our 600 cities suffer a shortage of water, and the overuse of underground water has already caused different degrees of land subsidence. The expansion of urbanization will undoubtedly increase the population of these cities, which will aggravate the water shortage. More motor vehicles will also increase exhaust emissions and thus worsen the already serious air pollution in cities.

The contradiction between the need for increased consumption and limited resources will become increasingly tense, and finally a bottleneck to the high rate of economic growth the country needs, unless breakthroughs are made to considerably increase the efficiency of resources.

One thing we should never ignore is that we lag behind developed countries in terms of science and technology. The European countries and the United States are still far ahead of us in green technologies.

If China cannot make breakthroughs in the sixth wave of innovation, it will have to buy such technologies from developed counterparts and continue to follow in their footsteps.

And aside from the cost constraints - the more advanced and more up to date the technologies are, the more expensive they will be - China will face resistance to its attempts to purchase the latest technologies.

The world's population reached 7 billion in October and is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. With an increasing number of developing countries striving to upgrade people's living standards and catch up with developed ones in their consumption level, the lack of resources is undoubtedly one of the most important challenges mankind has to address.

At such a critical time, the country that develops the key technology that considerably increases the efficiency of major resources will hold the key to sustainability. The government must have the necessary sense of anxiety and urgency, it must increase its input into research and gather the best scientists to work on the problem, so China can make breakthroughs at least in some part of this particular area. This would not only save ourselves but also the whole of mankind.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: zhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 03/14/2012 page9)