Is our ability to innovate running out of steam?

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, more patents were filed in 2011 than any previous year. That’s a global total of over two million patents filed annually. In the same period, one million were granted. Those data seem conspicuous in light of the innovation pessimism of some successful businessmen and economists, who have dubbed the present day the “Great Stagnation” and criticised the patent system for granting too many unmeritorious applications.

The promises of science fiction many of us grew up with certainly don’t seem true: flying cars and moon bases anyone? There is still a glimmer of hope though: Marty McFly didn’t ride a hoverboard until 2015.

It might be that all the low hanging fruit, such as electricity, personal transport, and refrigeration, have all been taken. On the other hand, computers and communications technology have advanced rapidly in the last two decades. That is relatively nascent – it took a century before innovative thinking in locomotive technology reached full steam and transformed the British economy. It seems unlikely that the full crop of ideas has already been reaped from advances in global commerce and the sharing of ideas over the internet.

If we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s probably just a case of waiting for everything else to catch up – people, governments, economies and other technologies. After all, the most modern of technology is useless without the proper accompanying infrastructure: Leonardo’s sketch of a helicopter was an impossible dream because a suitable engine would not be invented for several centuries.

So what do we all think? Is the rate of innovation slowing down? Or is the pessimism unjustified?

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