Is innovation really benefitting society?

This article was first published in Issue 1 of I, Science in March 2005, but not online.  It seemed appropriate to choose this article by Nino Mancino that gives a sense of that time, and timely, with Tony Benn’s death on our anniversary (March 14th) last year. I’d be interested to know how relevant people think it still is.  Neil Stoker.

tony benn shutterstock_85006906ON 17th February the Mechanical Engineering department hosted a special lecture by Tony Benn, former Labour MP. The theme of Benn’s lecture was Engineering and Society and the way in which technology effects the evolution of societies.

He started his lecture by observing that the most successful nations throughout history have been the most industrially advanced for their time. Britain created an Empire that lasted almost 200 years because it was the premier industrial powerhouse and developed an outstanding navy. During the 20th century the US established a similar hegemony, and Benn believes that in due time other nations, notably China, will experience similar fates.

Benn acknowledged the genuine benefits gained from improvements in technology and science, but went on to say that the world today remains blighted by the same age-old problems of poverty and injustice. In an era when we can land probes onto distant planets, this begs the question – why?

According to Benn, the problem stems partly from the, at best, naive and, at worst, selfish motives that feed the relentless drive to create products and services that are cheaper and more convenient. The central question he posed is: are the entrepreneurs of today creating better technology in order to improve society or are they doing it to amass more wealth for themselves and their shareholders? Have we become so obsessed with synthesising easier lives that we’ve lost sight of where we should really be channelling our talents? Wouldn’t it be better for example to solve the world’s energy needs, rather than spend time and money on making mobile phones that take photographs?

According to Benn, innovation for innovation’s sake creates more problems than it solves because with it we lose the critical capacity to question why we are improving technology. Drawing on his experiences after World War II, serving in the RAF, he compared the modern world with Britain in 1945 which “didn’t have two pennies to rub together”. Despite the desperate post-war economy, the country was fuelled with an innovative spirit that transformed the nation. This period saw the birth of the NHS, the comprehensive school system and the welfare state. And it happened because society knew where there was need and got on with it. Benn believes that today we have forgotten, or simply do not know, how to discern between what we can and should do with regards to improving technology.

Part of his solution rests with the relationship between engineers and politicians. Engineers are responsible for making these improvements in technologies, but it is politicians who ultimately decide how they should be used. A more open dialogue between the two should enable better use of resources. This new working relationship requires engineers to be more engaged in the political debate so that unnecessary projects can be filtered out, allowing for extra research on endeavours more beneficial to society. It is also vital for politicians to raise more questions and to demand greater rigour from their aides. In the experience of Benn, the aides are too eager to place a proposal for funding onto the Minister’s desk without having considered themselves why that particular project is worthy of attention.

Education is the key to solving these problems. We must, according to Benn, create an education system that trains future generations to question and to develop better judgement, rather than just accept whatever information they are given. Only by creating generations of genuine thinkers, who engage in debate and are fully informed could we solve the myriad of problems that plague us.

As one would expect from Tony Benn, the issues raised were varied and profound. With deft skill, he was able to extend effortlessly the scope of his talk to include the themes of democracy, nuclear power, the influence of multinational corporation and the role of the elderly in society. Provocative without being rude, argumentative without being disrespectful, he remains compulsive viewing and is a vanguard of open, constructive and reasoned debate. The House of Commons’ loss is our gain!

Image: Tony Benn by David Fowler (Shutterstock)

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