This post backtracks to some extent to one of the earlier “questions to think about” that Blaine always leaves us with after class. The question “Is technological innovation essential to the advancement of society?” plays out really strongly in this week’s lectures. There are polymers that can heal themselves, insulation materials made of almost nothing but air, and carbon nanotubes smaller than a human hair; materials not thought possible even thirty years ago. And while these materials will all be revolutionary in their own right, when does technological innovation become somewhat arbitrary?
In one of my previous sustainability classes, there was a comparison brought up between two recently developed skylight concepts. The first one our professor showed us was the Swedish company Parans and their solar tracking skylight/LED combo. Using sensors installed in a unit on the roof of the building, the system pivots and angles itself to get optimal sunlight during the course of the day. Once the sun sets, LED lights can be activated within the same cavity that sunlight comes through. The other skylight is the same system Blaine talked about in Tuesday’s lecture: Liter of Light. Each light is equivalent to a 55W bulb. Locals are paid to gather bottles, prepare them for installment, and install them.
Both of these technologies tackle the same problem (need for natural light) in very different ways. Yet both ultimately accomplish the same result. So is technological innovation truly essential to the advancement of society if a $5 skylight can get light in just as well as a $5,000 skylight? When is it best to look at what is around us right now and utilize that in new ways, rather than creating something entirely new?