How to build an industrial revolution

The next great disruption will not come about by accident. It must be planned

What could we do and develop with 10 times more energy? Photo courtesy: RTA
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What could we do and develop with 10 times more energy? This is a question our columnist Robin Mills poses on today’s business pages. Mills discusses the move from the first industrial revolution – the vast changes wrought by the powers of steam, coal and iron – to the third industrial revolution, where we now live, a world of great connectivity, information and electronics.

How, he posits, do we leap into the next phase, and what might that look like? His answer is more of a question: if clean energy became 10 times cheaper or 10 times more abundant, what new industries could emerge? We would add one further question: how can this country be at the forefront of that mission?

Thinking 10 times bigger might seem natural to this region, but the question of how to create the right environment to develop and support such technologies is far from easy. For a start, it is a leap into the unknown. No one really knows from where the next great leap forward will come. Mills identifies robotics, biotechnology and the internet of things, which are already a reality. Creating the educational and policy environment for those is possible, but it requires heavy government investment in education, the regulatory environment that allows companies to try and to fail, and a broader acceptance of new technologies.

Yet to really leapfrog will also require companies to innovate. This, as Mills points out with regard to energy companies, is much harder. Big companies prefer to focus on certain profits – but the enormous investment in new technologies required in the energy sector or in transport is much more easily done by companies than by bootstrapped startups. No one can guess where the real breakthrough will come from – that is clear only in hindsight – but the edges of current research are fruitful places to start.

And yet even creating this revolution will not end the reality that society imposes. People will still need jobs. Goods will need to be manufactured. Much of the planet still lacks water, electricitiy and telecommunication infrastructure. So part of this revolution must also be making sure energy is widely and easily accessible (as Masdar is seeking to do), and to make sure that the next industrial revolution, when it comes, causes limited disruption to society. After all, the past three have brought enormous social change, and not all of it good.