The great advances mankind has enjoyed in health, prosperity, food production and longevity are largely taken for granted. Around one billion people have been taken out of extreme poverty in the last 20 years. The march of progress in technology is remarkable – the computing power in your mobile phone is many times that which first put men on the moon. Science, innovation, entrepreneurship and global free trade have raised prosperity, education and opportunity around the world. The incidence of war is at much lower levels than in previous centuries. But we have a natural tendency to focus on the problems. Bad news features in our media because it grabs attention much more easily than steady progress.
The biggest environmental problem in 1900 was not air pollution or climate change. It was horse dung. In London alone there were an estimated 300,000 horses pulling carts, cabs and buses. The muck piled up in the streets causing bad odours and health risks. Urban authorities were unable to come up with an effective solution. But within 10 years the problem disappeared as the internal combustion engine replaced the horse.
It is not so much the big innovations that improve life as the countless incremental improvements in quality and usability of products and services. The motor car has continually become safer, more connected and more fuel efficient over the years. We currently have significant problems with pollution, traffic accidents and congestion. But fear not; driverless vehicles are not far away and they will deliver huge benefits in safety, cost and traffic management. Around the world over 100,000 people die every month in road traffic accidents. Most accidents are caused by driver error and the autonomous vehicle will massively reduce the carnage as well as smoothing traffic flow and reducing emissions.
When the internet was launched it was a patchy and cumbersome resource for the technically savvy. People roundly condemned its reliability and coverage. In a now notorious article in Newsweek in 1995, entitled ‘The Internet? Bah!’ the eminent commentator Clifford Stoll rubbished the prospects for the internet and e-commerce. Among other things he said, ‘No online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.’ At the time the internet deserved criticisms but he underestimated the power of continuous improvement to fix things.
For sure people, governments and agencies get policies wrong but eventually the systems improve. We face big challenges with issues from global warming to inequality of opportunity. Do not be downhearted. We must continue to have faith and invest in Science, Engineering, Technology, Research and the Innovation of our Enterprises. They and the steady march of improvement are what will deliver a better future.