Brazil: the natural knowledge economy
Kirsten Bound – THE ATLAS OF IDEAS
If you grew up in Europe or North America you will no doubt have been taught in school that the Wright Brothers from Ohio invented and flew the first aeroplane – the Kitty Hawk – in 1903. But if you grew up in Brazil you will have been taught that the real inventor was in fact a Brazilian from Minas Gerais called Alberto Santos Dumont, whose 14-bis aeroplane took to the skies in 1906. This fierce historical debate, which turns on definitions of ‘practical airplanes’, the ability to launch unaided, length of time spent in the air and the credibility of witnesses, will not be resolved here. Yet it is a striking example of the lack of global recognition for Brazil’s achievements in innovation.
Almost a century later, in 2005, Santos Dumont’s intellectual heirs, the company Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica (EMBRAER), made aviation history of a different kind when they unveiled the Ipanema, the world’s first commercially produced aircraft to run solely on biofuels. This time, the world was watching. Scientific American credited it as one of the most important inventions of the year. The attention paid to the Ipanema reflects the growing interest in biofuels as a potential solution to climate change and rising energy demand. To their advocates, biofuels – most commonly bioethanol or biodiesel – offer a more secure, sustainable energy supply that can reduce carbon emissions by 50–60 per cent compared to fossil fuels.
From learning to fly to learning to cope with the environmental costs of flight, biofuel innovations like the Ipanema reflect some of the tensions of modern science, in which expanding the frontiers of human ingenuity goes hand in hand with managing the consequences. The recent backlash against biofuels, which has seen them blamed for global food shortages as land is reportedly diverted from food crops, points to a growing interdependence between the science and innovation systems of different countries, and between innovation, economics and environmental sustainability.
The debates now raging over biofuels reflect some of the wider dynamics in Brazil’s innovation system. They remind us that Brazil’s current strengths and achievements have deeper historical roots than is sometimes imagined. They reflect the fact that Brazil’s natural resources and assets are a key area of opportunity for science and innovation – a focus that leads us to characterise Brazil as a ‘natural knowledge economy’. Most importantly, they highlight the propitious timing of Brazil’s growing strength in these areas at a time when climate change, the environment, food scarcity and rising worldwide energy demand are at the forefront of global consciousness. What changed between the maiden flight of the 14-bis and the maiden flight of the Ipanema is not just Brazil’s capacity for technological and scientific innovation, but the rest of the world’s appreciation of the potential of that innovation to address some of the pressing challenges that confront us all.
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