"There has been more material progress in the United States in the 20th century than there was in the entire world in all the previous centuries combined."
-- Stephen Moore and Julian Simon, Cato Institute, December 1999
Given the success of the 20th century, those of us living in the 21st century have come to expect constant improvements in technology. We expect to upgrade to a high-definition TV within a few years. We expect that our cell phones will soon also be our cameras, personal organizers, and portable music players.
But this culture of constant expectation is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. In terms of technology, your great-great-grandfather's life in the 19th century wasn't that much different than his great-great-grandfather's. In fact, the two could have switched times and places and still functioned with relative ease. But try putting one of them here in the 21st century. Talk about a fish out of water! Things we accept as commonplace -- commercial airplanes, television, and microwave ovens -- would be downright perplexing to them.
And to think, all of these world-changing advances took place in just the 20th century. Heck, in a mere 66 years, we went from the Wright brothers' first flight to Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. That's absolutely incredible, especially in the context of human history.
So what's next?
If the first eight years of this century are any indication, 21st-century innovation will prove to be even more prolific than that in the 20th. Consider the social and cultural changes brought about by camera phones manufactured by Nokia
Videoconferencing has also taken off as a new mode of communication, becoming much easier to use as video quality and sound have vastly improved. eBay's
A recurring topic that will be addressed and readdressed in the 21st century is the need for renewable energy sources. Integrated oil companies are getting into the renewable energy game. BP has stakes in solar, geothermal, wind, and hydrogen power technology. Then there are the agricultural conglomerates like Bunge
Clearly, whether the eventual solution is wind energy, ethanol, nuclear energy, a more efficient use of current fossil fuels, or solar energy, a lot of money will be spent and made in solving our world's growing energy needs. At our Motley Fool Rule Breakers growth investing service, one company we've recommended is Suntech Power
Currently, solar power accounts for a fractional percentage of energy use, so there's huge growth potential here. Moreover, because Suntech is aiming to be the world's low-cost producer of solar technology, our team thinks the company is in a good position to meet both consumer and environmental demands.
How to profit from change
More world-changing technology will come about in the 21st century than in any previous one. The Cato Institute's report noted that "the progress of the 20th century is not a mere historical blip but rather the start of a long-term trend of improved life on earth." Indeed, science and engineering have already reshaped the world we knew just 10 years ago.
This is great news for investors. Such innovation presents unparalleled opportunities to capitalize on the pioneering companies that will change our world. But which of these companies deserves your investing dollars?
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Prashant Rathore updated this article, originally written by Todd Wenning and published on Oct. 16, 2006. Prashant does not have any financial interest in the companies mentioned above. eBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.