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Observations & Insights

Why study progress?

I’ve been studying progress for over a decade. As an alumnus of a corporate innovation lab and a few startups, I’ve been curious about innovation for a long time. I felt like it was part of my job to collect and understand how organizations and individuals can create better systems that inspire, encourage, and not block innovation. I also think my interest, and subsequent degree, in economics stemmed from a natural interest in societal innovation. For example, how do we measure progress? GDP? Is that enough or do we need more indicators of progress? (Which we do.)

First, let’s look at a proxy for progress and innovation (we’ll cover more in future posts, but this is the one we all know) – Global GDP throughout history:

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-gdp-over-the-last-two-millennia

There are several factors that have contributed to this. One factor is the exponential growth of the number of people in the world. Another is the compounding of innovation via our tools. This compounding includes things such as communication capabilities, access to information, and building the next layer of the tech stack – as many of us in the tech industry have been participating in and witnessing for decades first hand. Pretty exciting!

My interest was piqued when Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison wrote a piece about progress. Both of them are purveyors of progress. I’ve follower Tyler for a long time and Patrick since he started his company. I recommend reading the entire piece, but a couple of sections stood out to me.

First, a definition of what they were talking about:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies. [link]

This is so true. 
In relation to the concept of “innovation,” it’s poorly defined in many people’s minds and, beyond narrow discussions within economics and within business innovation and design groups, I don’t think anyone has spent time holistically putting together the frameworks. (Note: I do think that there is some thinking in the fields of Design and Innovation that does match models that we’re looking for under the banner of “progress studies,” it’s just been explored by such a small group of designers, corporate innovators, and partially startup entrepreneurs). I think there are some things we can bring over to progress studies to think about how to accelerate progress.

Then, they covered a general definition of success:

The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions. In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand. [link]

I believe that we can develop systems that can improve our capability for innovation/ progress. In future posts, I’ll dive into ideas about defining progress, ambitions, past patterns, and future potential.

I believe that we can develop systems that can improve our capability for innovation and progress. In future posts, I’ll dive into ideas about defining progress, ambitions, past patterns, and future potential. 

It should be fun! Stick around. Also, if you’re around San Francisco and you’re working on something related to progress, let’s chat!

I believe that we can develop systems that can improve our capability for innovation and progress. In future posts, I’ll dive into ideas about defining progress, ambitions, past patterns, and future potential. 

It should be fun! Stick around. Also, if you’re around San Francisco and you’re working on something related to progress, let’s chat!

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