Column: Alex Nedelcu

Innovation as a hammer

The dream of innovation is simply not enough to take us where we need to be in fighting climate change. Innovation can even hinder progress, writes columnist Alex Nedelcu.

Alex Nedelcu, columnist Delta (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

To answer the superlative crisis of climate change, humanity is marshalling its brainpower and resources under the banner of innovation. Technology, we are promised, is a path that would allow us to keep the benefits of our modern lifestyle while lowering our ecological footprint. Some of these technologies are being developed right here at TU Delft!

We will soon be able to travel sustainably in a hyperloop, or fly using hydrogen or electric aviation. Carbon capture will allow us to economically decrease atmospheric CO2, and self-driving taxis will drive us anywhere we need to go. And yet, the self-driving taxi keeps being two years away, carbon capture is mainly used for enhanced oil recovery, and sustainable aviation remains an intention. And hyperloop … well.

I deeply appreciate the spirit of innovation fostered at TU Delft. This focus on innovation is an integral part of enabling solutions for the climate crisis and beyond. However, innovation can sometimes take on magical proportions and blow out of context. Why worry about pesky problems like politics or practical implementation? All we need is a bit more innovation and we can solve any problem.

Funding for disruptive technologies is scarce – precisely because they disrupt the status quo

But this tunnel vision on innovation can lead to two problems. Firstly, tech hype can blur the lines between reality and fantasy, and real limitations and obstacles can go under the radar, leaving stakeholders with an unclear picture. Secondly, even if these technologies could form an important part of our arsenal in the fight against climate change, they are currently used as fig leaves to cover unpleasant realities. Funding for disruptive technologies is scarce – precisely because they disrupt the status quo. This lowers their chance of development at scale, and hinders our progress towards sustainable solutions.

Corporate environments evidently benefit from pretending that the next great innovation is only a couple years away so that consumers can calmly keep consuming their ‘currently’ unsustainable products. This is because in reality, reducing our footprint would cause significant disruption to people’s lives. We all want to keep living the way we do – preferably, better. We don’t like taking the train instead of flying.

But I consider it irresponsible to see innovation as a blank cheque to behave with disregard of the impacts of our actions on the world around us. Innovation can help – if it is pursued wholeheartedly and not as a hammer to crush existing solutions and allow us to stagnate while hoping for something better. We already have solutions that work, but they can be unpleasant, demanding, and disruptive.

We can comfortably replace a large portion of continental flights with high-speed rail. We can scale down emissions by divesting from fossil fuel infrastructure, electrifying, and investing seriously in nuclear and renewable energy. To solve our great problems, these solutions and others have to be both researched and implemented in context. The dream of innovation is simply not sufficient to take us where we need to be, and, without direction, can even hinder progress. After all, dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.

Alex Nedelcu is an international third-year bachelor student at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He studies manufacturing-induced defects in composite structures as part of the Faculty’s Honours research programme. He is also a student representative in the Faculty’s Board of Studies, where he focuses on diversity and sustainability issues.

Columnist Alex Nedelcu

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