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War and peace - what conflict does for innovation

13 April 2022 7:15 PM
Digital technology

It is sad that sometimes the unintended consequence of war is progress

It does not reflect well on humanity that following significant conflicts new technologies emerge that would have either taken longer to mature or would not have existed.

The League of Nations was formed to ensure there would never be another world war, we know that did not work, but following the 2nd world war, the United Nations was created to succeed where the League of Nations failed.

Would a world body to manage diplomacy have been created if not for a world war? Would the world have come together to create additional bodies like Unicef, if not for the harm done to the innocent during those wars and would we have the richest nations paying to create the largest humanitarian organisation in the World Food Programme to acknowledge that humans deserve help everywhere and understand that hungry nations can’t be stable ones.

We routinely see rockets send satellites and more often humans into space now. Those rockets are the direct descendants of rockets first designed by Germany to bomb its enemies. Those same rockets carried us to the moon, but we probably would not have managed it, if there was not also a need for massive rockets to send nuclear bombs anywhere on the planet.

Economics is all about incentives and opportunities

This is just a small sample of the recent innovations that came as a result of war. It is regrettable that without the risk of being defeated we are unwilling to allocate funds to find new solutions.

The Covid pandemic is an example of a situation that was not unexpected by public health officials, but their budgets are determined by the politicians that derive their power for the public and before a pandemic the public did not see the need to spend the sums needed to deal with it.

Once the pandemic hit though, everything changed. What a pity that we actually had to have the pandemic to acknowledge that it would be better to have measures in place to avoid it before it happens.

If there is one occasion when the warning was headed and for the most part averted was in 2000 when it was feared many computers would not be able to register the new millennium. For the most part the critical machines were upgraded while despite us believing we were a digital society then, we were only at the start. If a similar bug were found now the implications given how much more of our lives are managed by machines would make the risk significantly higher.

In part because the threat was addressed and in part because many found the non-event better explained that it was all fear mongering in the first place, we may see a new threat not get the attention it requires.

The most serious of these is global warming. It has moved beyond debate that it is happening and we are getting more indications of just how bad it can get, but we are still unmoved to take it seriously enough to make the changes we need.

Back to the future

Here is where the irony of war having a positive effect on innovation and despite the short to medium term harm, may in the fullness of time come to be seen as a major trigger for change and improvement.

The wheat produced by Ukraine supplies some huge populations in Egypt and Pakistan and half of the needs of the World Food Programme. Russia is a big supplier too, but sanctions are likely to see it remain in Russia.

That means sharp price increases and shortages in the next two years (assuming the war will end soon).

It is not just wheat, Ukraine supplies but sunflower too which means vegetable oil. A staple in many countries with populations that can’t afford big price increases.

A shortage of supply will see other producers increase their production, but that will either mean not planting something else or using marginal land for bigger yields. To get those yields you need more fertiliser.

Russia is the world largest exporter of fertiliser, so its supply will be affected. One of the reasons it produces so much is that it has so much natural gas to run the energy intensive process.

Other countries will need to increase production, but many of those use coal for the energy which is more harmful to the environment.

It appears to be an unmitigated mess and in many respects it absolutely is.

But in the same way the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 caused the oil price to surge. Not only did oil double in price, it remained at the higher prices for the next decade, in fact it only reached the lows pre 2001 during the crazy drop after the pandemic.

The sustained increase in the price of oil, justified an investment into alternatives. Lithium battery production thanks to electronic devices and then electric cars allowed for the investment and to create the kind of market that would spend top dollar to drive the original Tesla roadster, that investment allowed the production to scale to allow for an affordable electric car to become highly desirable regardless of the oil price. The current spike in fuel prices in the US is another reason Tesla owners are laughing.

The shift that Tesla began is now being copied by the rest of the manufactures who are rapidly phasing out their combustion models and it is giving politicians reason to declare that they will outlaw combustion engines in the near future. Not because it is a better option but because consumers want it and can see the benefits in fuel and running costs.

It does not mean it does not create its own issues, but you would not have thought George W Bush and his oil money buddies would have had such a positive impact on more sustainable transport.

It was not just electric cars, all renewable energy looked a lot cheaper once oil prices doubled.

Wind turbines and solar panels were expensive and not that efficient. Both saw massive investment and innovation which with production at scale saw the price to produce the energy not only compete with fossil fuels but exceed it. For home users who could not run a power plant at home, they could now install solar panels to generate much of their energy needs and even sell the excess to further reduce the cost to build it.

So where does that leave us now?

The fertiliser challenge will see the experimental attempts to use alternatives or more effective fertilisers or a push to regenerative farming methods.

While the fertiliser price was set and stable no-one would look to the other options, now they have no choice. Those alternatives are likely to also see benefits of scale and broader adoption and rather than a single fix, the range of options will see the best ones used where needed and our overall dependency on an energy intensive and somewhat harmful use of fertiliser change for good.

With natural gas, considered to be the cleanest of the fossil fuels, and favoured for home heating in the colder north, the spike in price and potential challenge to get it will see a further boost to solar panels and thermal heaters.

Heat pumps are efficient and if using renewable energy very sustainable, until the gas price and availability was negatively affected only those with a strong environmental consciousness would switch. Now the alternative will become the first choice and the scale and investment will see unit prices come down.

There are new options to produce more efficient solar panels but at the moment they are not very long lasting, the added demand will see more investment and if successful will see us create a way to make cheap, long lasting and efficient panels.

One aspect that seemed to challenge solar panels is that despite them needing lots of sun to operate, their efficiency reduces as the temperature increases.

For a country like sunny South Africa having solar panels produce less on the sunniest days is likely to be a big issue, thankfully a start up company hopes to fix that by cooling the panels with air and then using that air to be used in a thermal battery to warm the house later that night or to maintain the swimming pool water or just vent it to ensure the maximum energy while the sun is out.

Another solution looks at using cheap reflective panels to direct even more sunlight onto the panel increasing the output of the panel and extending the amount that can be generated during the day and when a hail storm is predicted the metal reflectors can be closed to protect the glass solar panel from harm.

The demand for more panels will attract more manufacturers which will work to improve output and lower costs. Using solar whether for electricity or heating will reduce the need for burning coal or gas and being less reliant on the major producers or when there is a supply constraint.

A final thought

None of this will be any comfort for those that are defending themselves against the invaders and it is off little use to those that have been sent to fight and kill others.

It would be better if we could finally resolve that our ability to tackle big challenges does not require death and destruction, that we can do more through cooperation than conflict. If we only we could learn that complex situations can’t be addressed by simple nationalistic or emotional arguments.

The world is a wonderful place and there is more than enough for everyone if only we could accept that we only win when we all win.

13 April 2022 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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