Vaclav Smil: The 12 innovations we need to save humanity and the planet

Which inventions should we prioritize to safeguard the environment and human health and happiness? From better batteries and photovoltaic paint to a universal vaccine precursor, Vaclav Smile shares his wish list


3 January 2023


I HAVE never been a fan of science fiction. I am highly suspicious of any too-good-to-be-true claims about “epoch-making” discoveries. But I have also written extensively about the transformative impacts of inventions, from synthetic ammonia for fertilizer production and semiconductor devices in electronics to the 5-in-1 vaccine, which immunises against a range of diseases. What’s more, it seems obvious to me that we need new fundamental advances like these to cope with the multitude of economic, social and environmental challenges we currently face. I address potential advances in my new book, Invention and Innovation: A brief history of hype and failure.

Identifying the top priorities for possible breakthroughs isn’t easy, not least because there is so much room for improvement. Consider energy. Bill Gates has noted that: “Half the technology needed to get to zero emissions either doesn’t exist yet or is too expensive for much of the world to afford.” You could say the same about every scientific and technical category. Moreover, any list of the most desirable inventions is bound to be subjective. If you see mine as rather conservative, I plead guilty: there is no faster-than-light travel, no terraforming of other planets.

Instead, my top 12 innovations, which I set out here, cover a range of issues that we urgently need to address. They focus on areas that will have the biggest impact on human well-being and the environment and where there is already knowledge to build on. My wish list even includes three changes that all of us can get to work on right now (see “Bigger and better”).

A universal vaccine precursor


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