The great innovation debate | economist.com


The Economist

Growth

Fears that innovation is slowing are exaggerated, but governments need to help it along

WITH the pace of technological change making heads spin, we tend to think of our age as the most innovative ever. We have smartphones and supercomputers, big data and nanotechnologies, gene therapy and stem-cell transplants. Governments, universities and firms together spend around $1.4 trillion a year on R&D, more than ever before.

Yet nobody recently has come up with an invention half as useful as that depicted on our cover. With its clean lines and intuitive user interface, the humble loo transformed the lives of billions of people. And it wasn’t just modern sanitation that sprang from late-19th and early-20th-century brains: they produced cars, planes, the telephone, radio and antibiotics.

Modern science has failed to make anything like the same impact, and this is why a growing band of thinkers claim that the pace of innovation has slowed (see article). Interestingly, the gloomsters include not just academics such as Robert Gordon, the American economist who offered the toilet test of uninventiveness, but also entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist behind Facebook.

If the pessimists are right, the implications are huge. Economies can generate growth by adding more stuff: more workers, investment and education. But sustained increases in output per person, which are necessary to raise incomes and welfare, entail using the stuff we already have in better ways—innovating, in other words. If the rate at which we innovate, and spread that innovation, slows down, so too, other things being equal, will our growth rate.

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