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Posted at 04:25 PM ET, 01/11/2013

Can we ever do better than the toilet?


Cover of the Economist for the week of Jan. 12, 2013. (The Economist)

This piece has been updated.

The cover story for this week’s Economist is on one of our favorite topics: the debate over the state of innovation — whether its slowing down, speeding up and what it means for economic growth.

In the grand tradition of the magazine, the authors are anonymous, but there are two pieces on the debate over whether innovation has slowed. The shorter of the two asserts that we have yet to develop “an invention half as useful as” the toilet, going on to state that “the biggest danger” to the fast-flowing juices of innovation in the 21st century is government. The second, longer piece is a tour of the current debate over whether innovation and new technology have stopped fueling growth. The conclusion: take claims that innovation and new technology are no longer fueling economic growth with a grain of salt. The innovation engine continues to churn, just not in the way it once did.

“There will be more innovation,” writes the cover-story’s author, “but it will not change the way the world works in the way electricity, internal combustion engines, plumbing, petrochemicals and the telephone have.”

The longer piece also addresses the work of George Mason University professor and economist Tyler Cowen, mostly from his 2011 book titled “The Great Stagnation.” Asked what he thought of the piece, Cowen said via an e-mail Friday that he thought it was “excellent.”

He went on to say that a “key distinction” needed to be made between ”whether we have had lots of recent innovation” — he thinks we have — and “whether those innovations have much raised typical standards of living for Americans,” which he says is “much less clear.”

“Looking forward, I am optimistic actually,” Cowen said. ”Science has not stopped, it simply gets turned into practical products at a very uneven rate.  The new question will be who is poised to benefit from the forthcoming stream of advances.”

The debate over whether innovation has stalled will very likely continue well after this and many other pieces are written. That said, at least in so far as the toilet is concerned, the Gates Foundation already has an initiative to fund inventions to improve that particular technology. The Foundation’s work, however, did not make an appearance in either piece. So, while they may not be inventing something new, different and completely earth-shattering, at least there are people trying to improve on our existing commode technology.

Notable in the longer cover story, although perhaps not central to it, was this drawing of a thick line between innovation and technology:

Innovation and technology, though talked of almost interchangeably, are not the same thing. Innovation is what people newly know how to do. Technology is what they are actually doing; and that is what matters to the economy.

It’s an important distinction to consider, particularly as the consumer electronics show winds down — an event that was greeted with a relatively loud, collective yawn on the part of tech writers. The next, great, industry-transforming invention may not have been unveiled in Las Vegas this week, but an absence of new technology, as outlined above, doesn’t necessarily mean a slowing of innovation.

What do you think, is there merit to talk of innovation stagnation, or no? Let us know in the comments.

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