Alex Tabarrok’s TED talk showed you that ideas can trump nearly every crisis. Now, since ideas are so important, we have to ask: is the future of ideas a bright one?
To answer that, we’ll look at something we call the Idea Equation.
It goes like this: Ideas = Population x Incentives x Ideas/per hour.
This equation is a useful way to lay out the factors affecting idea production. When we understand the factors behind production, then we can better predict how the future will go.
Now, the first factor in the equation, is population.
Population determines how many possible idea creators we can have. The good news is, not only is world population growing, but a larger percentage of that population is becoming part of the researcher pool. For instance, China now has 1 researcher per thousand people. This seems low, until you remember they had about half a researcher per thousand in the year 2000. This means they’ve doubled their researcher pool, in just about 10 years.
So, on the population front, we’re seeing progress.
But how about the incentives that encourage idea creation? What’s the state of those?
That’s factor 2 in the equation, and again, we have good news here.
See, for the most part, countries are now choosing better institutions. On balance, the world now has more dependable legal systems, and more honest governments. Previously closed-off nations are now opening their markets to competition and trade. Aside from that, the world is generally becoming more politically stable, and property rights are strengthening as well.
As a result of these better institutions, there are now more incentives to produce ideas. Not to mention, we’re still continuing to globalize world markets. Remember what the TED talk said? Larger markets incentivize more R&D, and we’re certainly seeing higher activity in this area.
For example, in 1990, only seven nations accounted for 92% of world research spending. Today, those same 7 countries only account for 56%. Countries like China, Korea, and Brazil have already joined the fray, sharing the burden of idea creation, which benefits us all.
That said, we do still have the third part of the Idea Equation. This is where things get hairy.
You see, the factor “ideas/per hour” is the most mysterious one. Yes, it measures the productivity of idea creators, but we’re still unsure how productive the future will be. For one, there’s evidence that idea creation is becoming more expensive in certain fields. But on the other hand, we’re also seeing new technology that makes idea creation easier—things like the Internet, AI, and online education.
As long as we continue to globalize markets, provide better incentives for idea production, and keep developing technology that makes idea creation easier, then there’s no reason to think that the future can’t be bright. The brightness may not be guaranteed, but at least there’s hope, which is what matters.
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