A discussion over the ways in which clean tech is or isn’t similar to info tech is unnecessarily clouding a larger and more fundamental issue – that clean tech has the potential to be the next great technology-based engine of economic growth and jobs.

The economic growth that since World War II brought the United States to economic pre-eminence and gave Americans a high standard of living has been generated by a series of R&D and technology-driven industries that built huge markets in the United States and abroad.

Commercial airlines, electronics, computing, digital communications, pharmaceuticals and biotech, consumer electronics, software, the Internet – have all, sometimes through several generations of technology, taken turns driving economic growth and prosperity. Comparisons between the clean tech and info tech focus on only the most recent iteration of computing and communications technologies, creating the wrong impression that unless the industry built on energy and sustainability looks like the Internet revolution, it will not succeed.

There are significant differences between these two most recent “revolutions”.

  • The technologies and companies fueling the Internet boom were largely not capital intensive – either to start or to scale. Sustainability technologies are.
  • The unprecedented long-term growth in technological capability driven by Moore’s Law is unlikely to be replicated for energy and sustainability.
  • The view that Internet companies did not have to defeat or displace powerful incumbents like the oil and gas behemoths has some truth. There were powerful incumbents – IBM, HP, AT&T, the large carriers – but the Internet companies didn’t have to directly compete with them on their turf.
  • A difference that doesn’t get a lot of play, but should, is the source of demand growth that provides the resources to amortize the costs of development and drive down the costs of production. Individual consumers drove demand and volumes in the Internet revolution. They were spending on new and very tangibly different experiences, whereas moving to renewable energy is largely a substitution and not a visible one at that.

Some of those other growth-generating industries looked more like sustainability than like the Internet. Commercial aviation, early computing and drug development are all capital intensive. Sometimes there were incumbents (later generations of computing), sometimes there weren’t (early generations of computing).

Demand generation offers the most interesting and instructive models.

  • Sometimes government played the role of the demand generator (early electronics and aviation).
  • In other cases, government created and paid for the playing field (airports and traffic control for aviation).
  • Another model saw early demand driven by government (electronics for national defense) bringing down costs to the point that consumer-driven demand could take over (early consumer electronics like radio and TV).
  • Yet another variant saw industry generate the early demand (computer graphics and visualization) only to see the market completely taken over by the demands of not just consumers, but a previously unconsidered segment of consumers (video games for youth)

We can and should draw much more heavily on the experience of these successive engines of growth as we look for ways to fulfill the promise of sustainability to be the next such engine. We just shouldn’t let a comparison with the most recent example block us from learning from all of them.

Why clean tech is and isn’t like the Internet – and why that doesn’t matter