1.8 Different perspectives
Whether we use S-curves or develop categories of innovation, the important element is recognising that they are dependent on perspectives. As you have already seen in the activities so far, different people in the same situation may ‘see’ the innovation differently and thus assign it to different categories. You might consider wind power turbines as a radical innovation, while others will point to the history of using windmills over many hundreds of years and thus identify modern equivalents as incremental or disruptive innovations at best.
It’s important to remember that not everyone will interpret an innovation in the same way.
Whether you categorise something as radical, disruptive or incremental, the word innovation is often synonymous with an improvement. However, it’s important to remember that not everyone will consider an innovation an improvement.
You will now look at two different perspectives on whether energy-efficient light bulbs are in fact a positive innovation (of whatever category) leading to environmental improvements.
Reading 2 McSmith, 2006
Approximate reading time: 5 minutes
Read ‘’, an article published in The Independent (McSmith, 2006).
While the newspaper article presents some positive messages associated with innovations in light bulb technology, this is only one aspect of the story. A paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology investigated the environmental toxicities of compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs compared to regulatory limits in the USA. In the following short quotation, the regulatory limit number refers to the limit for that particular substance. For example, the regulatory limit for lead leachability is five milligrams per litre (mg/l). Exceeding that limit would suggest some environmental toxicity.
We discovered that both CFL and LED bulbs are categorized as hazardous, due to excessive levels of lead (Pb) leachability (132 and 44 mg/l, respectively; regulatory limit: 5) and the high contents of copper (111 000 and 31 600 mg/kg, respectively; limit: 2500), lead (3860 mg/kg for the CFL bulb; limit: 1000), and zinc (34 500 mg/kg for the CFL bulb; limit: 5000), while the incandescent bulb is not hazardous (note that the results for CFL bulbs excluded mercury vapor not captured during sample preparation). The CFLs and LEDs have higher resource depletion and toxicity potentials than the incandescent bulb due primarily to their high aluminum, copper, gold, lead, silver, and zinc. Comparing the bulbs on an equivalent quantity basis with respect to the expected lifetimes of the bulbs, the CFLs and LEDs have 3–26 and 2–3 times higher potential impacts than the incandescent bulb, respectively. We conclude that in addition to enhancing energy efficiency, conservation and sustainability policies should focus on the development of technologies that reduce the content of hazardous and rare metals in lighting products without compromising their performance and useful lifespan.
This work suggests that CFL and LED bulbs exceed the USA regulatory limits for various metals by some considerable margin. This does not mean that the bulbs are therefore toxic, but it does mean they exceed the regulatory limits. (It may be the limits are too stringent.) The energy-efficient light bulb is but one example of where an innovation to improve environmental performance is subject to some critical questioning and doubt.
Activity 9 Benefits and disbenefits
Identify the environmental benefits and disbenefits highlighted in the reading and quotation. Do you consider energy-efficient light bulbs to be an innovation in terms of environmental management? Justify your answer.
Provide your answer...
Some of the benefits noted include:
- improved performance and longevity
- reduces CO2 production
- uses existing, readily available technologies
- saves money (approximately £1,300bn)
- avoids need for additional air conditioning.
Some of the disbenefits noted include:
- higher installations costs, especially in the short term
- high and potentially hazardous levels of some metals
- materials have a greater environmental impact.
It is hard to disagree that energy-saving light bulbs are an innovation – at least in the technology and some aspects of performance. But a wider perspective does raise some serious doubts as to their overall classification as an innovation.
On the one hand, it is not an innovation to increase possible exposure to and use of hazardous metals; however, reducing CO2 emissions is welcome. On balance, perhaps it is a partial innovation, but it is good to remain sceptical rather than accept any claims uncritically.