How ideology hobbles great innovation

By Greg Stevens on April 19th, 2012

It is easy to summarize the storyline of technological development whenever idealists become involved. Step 1: idealists excitedly announce that they have something brand new that can revolutionize and completely replace something that people are using now.

Step 2: people get very anxious and annoyed, because they like what they have now and don’t really feel like giving it up. Step 3: the new technology, no matter how good it is, fails to take off – or, at least, it fails to grow at the pace that it should, in order to be considered a “successful” new technology.

Consider, for example, solar panels. Looking at trends over the last decade, the United States has lagged far behind Europe, Japan and China in annual solar cell production, according to statistics provided by the World Watch Institute. The International Energy Agency ranks the United States behind Germany, Japan and Austria in per capita solar capacity.

While it’s true that the United States was the biggest investor in clean energy last year ($48.1 billion, beating China’s $45.5 billion), that was primarily a political anomaly: American companies are scrambling to take advantage of expiring government incentives in an uncertain political climate.

Nobody really expects that level of investment to continue, unless it is backed by government support in the form of incentive legislation. And nobody expects that to happen in the current political environment in the United States.

Why is America so much softer on solar energy than Europe, Japan, or China? This is not a product of the immediate economic difficulties that have been affecting both the United States and Europe for the last few years: it has been the persistent state of the American energy landscape for more than a decade.

Part of the answer lies in rhetoric. American environmental activists have been beating the drum from day one to replace all oil and coal with solar panels or other new energy alternatives. From bloggers to television pundits, and even more than a few professional politicians, the question of clean energy is placed in this radical frame: can we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy?

This entire marketing strategy, if you can call it that, which is often accompanied by blood-curdling and apocalyptic climate change predictions, raises huge barriers to acceptance, both practical and psychological. From a purely strategic perspective, environmentalists would probably have been better off talking about additional energy, rather than alternative energy.

The term “alternative” suggests replacing something that people are used to with something new. People generally don’t want a replacement for something they perceive to be working just fine.

When asked to give up something that makes them feel secure, Americans tend to lash out. The entire conversation about clean energy, as it takes place in the public arena, is stalled by ridiculous arguments such as: “We can’t use solar energy, because … what about night time?”

(A notable Republican presidential candidate recently said that wind is not an energy source worth pursuing because “you can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.”)

The arguments are ridiculous on their face – provided you understand that solar energy can be used as a supplement that will reduce dependency on fossil fuels when it’s available and in those settings where it is practical. Unfortunately, this was not the PR strategy environmentalists pursued.

That’s partly down to the fact that their arguments were ideologically, and not economically or scientifically, motivated. Accordingly, a radical and ridiculous “let’s replace oil with solar panels” push was, predictably, met with the equal-and-opposite “we can’t use solar energy at all, because sometimes it’s cloudy”. Like begets like.

Another example of this principle occurs in the field of bioplastics: biodegradable plastic that is made from renewable resources. As with solar power, this technology is relatively new and rapidly advancing. Starch-based plastics are having a fast-growing impact on the packaging industry, and technological “hybrids” (plastics made partly from plants and partly from oil) are being using in car parts and other heavy industry.

Naturally, bioplastic forms only a small fraction of the overall plastics market at present, and the economic difficulties of the last few years have put a dampener on growth in both Europe and in the United States. Nonetheless, this new technology is growing and is the focus of a great deal of excitement among environmentally-aware members of the materials industry.

Once again, however, there is a difference in attitudes between the United States and Europe. The North American bioplastic market has not progressed as rapidly as in Europe and Asia. An analysis of the global bioplastic market in 2010 reported that “use of bioplastics got off to a faster start in Europe than in the United States”.

“European usage is reported at 175,320 metric tons in 2010 and is expected to increase at a 33.9 per cent compound annual growth rate, to reach 753,760 metric tons in 2015.” By contrast, even the most sunny bioplastic industry advocates spin the United States market as an “opportunity for growth” (in the words of London-based Biome Technologies CEO Paul Mines).

Why is the United States lagging behind in the development of bioplastic technology? Once again, there is no way to avoid the problem of environmentalist rhetoric. Out of the gate, environmental idealists were touting bioplastic as the solution to the worlds plastic problems: the proverbial “silver bullet” to help reduce our dependency on oil and slow the growth of our landfills at the same time.

But, as usual, the rhetoric focused completely on replacement: you must give up regular plastic products, the environmentalists said, and use bioplastic products instead.

Once again, and quite predictably, the American public reacted badly. Bioplastics aren’t strong enough to completely replace all plastics. Bioplastics aren’t heat resistant enough to completely replace regular plastics. Bioplastics are ugly, and by the way how do we know they won’t biodegrade too quickly?

From a public relations point of view, hysterical rhetoric is always a mistake. Naturally, there is no single coordinated marketing organisation making this mistake: it is the over-enthusiasm on the part of ideologues. In a desperate effort to tell the world that they could fix everything at once, they instigated a backlash.

The same effect has been observed all around the world in the field of climate change, where the shrieking and ever more hysteria-laden demands of climate change activists have alienated the public, creating room for “deniers” in the media and fostering suspicion among the general population.

Could each of these cases have gone differently? Of course, we will never be able to say for sure. But one can imagine a scenario where a company promoted a specific bioplastic material for a specific, and limited, purpose. Or a scenario where the idea of bioplastics was introduced into the imagination of the public as something that could be mixed in with their regular plastic usage.

Instead of attempting to generate the screaming anxiety that dramatic change always raises, maybe it could have been introduced in a way that people respond more positively to: the presentation of simply… another option.

This is happening now, quietly and to good effect, in some places. Companies are making compound fibres made partly from petroleum and partly from plants, and using them in cars with no great fanfare. Companies are advertising compostable plastics in certain limited markets and niches.

But when it comes to general perception, it’s a day late and a dollar short. For the last decade, Americans have learned to associate “bioplastics” with radical environmentalists who want to take your sandwich bags away from you, and this image will continue to retard progress in the American market for years to come.

Closer to home: remember Google Wave? Remember how it was marketed as a “replacement” for email. Although Wave certainly suffered from its own array of technical and conceptual flaws, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that one factor that contributed to its demise was its “replacement of email” public relations strategy.

People don’t want to replace their email any more than they want to replace their plastic bags or their gasoline powered cars. People aren’t into replacement technology, they are into expansion technology: new features, new options.

This is why Google+ will fail if it allows its marketing operatives to paint themselves into the corner of trying to sell Google as a “replacement” for Facebook or Twitter. People will stick to what they know, and will see absolutely no reason to “replace” something that they feel comfortable with.

It will be the same mistake that ideologues always make. It will meet with the same results.