Where have all the big ideas gone?

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First aired on Q (16/7/12)

The incandescent light bulb. The turbine engine. The telephone. The automobile. These are all innovations that have changed the way we live. Pulitzer Award-nominated author and journalist Nicholas Carr believes that we aren't generating enough "big ideas" like these any more. Instead of the electrical grid, the steam engine and the polio vaccine, we're creating products like Facebook, Groupon and Instagram. Carr believes this is a major problem. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he called for a return to the groundbreaking, culture-shifting, far-reaching and high-minded innovation of the past. He believes our future depends on it, and stopped by Q to explain why.


Carr believes that innovation is a response to what the public cares about. And when the public cares about big ideas — about transportation, energy and the environment — innovators and entrepreneurs look for gaps in those fields to fill. But when people care about being able to "publicize ourselves" and "modify our moods" — areas Carr deems self-serving — the innovations that pop up and are celebrated are in those fields. Carr isn't denying that Facebook and Google have had a huge impact on the way we communicate. But he thinks those kinds of innovations are self-serving and ultimately trivial.

"We're not enthusiastic and we're not willing to pay for the kind of big innovations that push transport forward or energy efficiency," Carr said to Q host Jian Ghomeshi. "There's certainly work in all those areas, but that's not the focus of innovation today, and we risk losing out on the kind of progress that sets the stage for ongoing prosperity."

Carr believes that the next big world-changing inventions will not come from the U.S.A. but from China and India. And if the U.S. wants to remain a world leader in science, medicine, technology and culture, the country needs to start looking outward and start encouraging big ideas, like space travel, cures for cancer and green energy.

"We need to get out of ourselves and get enthusiastic about innovations that really do alter basic, more fundamental needs that then have broader repercussions than making ourselves happy."

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