About the project
The goal of driving more progress across the world—scientifically, politically, economically, socially, etc—is one shared by many. And yet, debates about the best way to maximize progress continue. After all, how, exactly, does progress happen? What are the best ways to measure progress? What should we prioritize? How do we nurture it and how are we stifling it?
Since Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their essay in The Atlantic a few years ago calling for “a more focused, explicit study of progress”, there has been an increased interest and discussion about how we better understand the drivers of progress and apply those findings to improve our world.
But, of course, there continue to be robust debates on where exactly to focus our efforts and what to prioritize. To better understand those current debates, we spoke with a handful of experts from a variety of disciplines and asked them the same ten questions about the nature of progress and what they see as the priorities that deserve our collective attention.
Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author
I think that progress is all about ideas in the end. I would focus on two kinds of ideas: On the one hand, we obviously have the importance of technology. It’s pretty clear that the massive progress over the last 200 years, it’s all driven by technology. It’s the story of the industrial revolution.That initially was pretty bad for quite a few people. If you lived in England in the year 1850, that was probably the worst place in time to be in, in all of world history. Initially, it wasn’t so great. Then, as we know, the economy kept growing and growing and growing, and especially in the years in between 1870 and 1970, the transformation of the whole world was just astounding, absolutely astounding. Since then, the rate of progress is still nice and acceptable. In the last 50 years, actually the rate of progress has slowed down a little bit. A lot of that is all about technology. It’s about new inventions, whether it’s antibiotics, or proper sanitation, or plumbing, cars. Travel has become so much faster, et cetera.
In the last 50 years of progress is mainly about communication and entertainment. We can stream a lot of TV shows today, much more than people in the past. That’s really one big part of it. The other thing that I would talk about is moral ideas. We’ve made moral progress as well, I think. That’s especially when you look at what the philosopher Peter Singer has called the Expanding Circle. If you go back very far in history, he makes the case that for a long time, we had a fairly small moral circle. We mainly cared about those people around us, the people in our own village, or our own tribe, et cetera.
Throughout history, or actually when time passed, you could make the case that actually our moral circle has expanded, from cities to states and from states to whole religions, et cetera, et cetera. We’ve included more and more people in our circle of moral concern. Now, some people also actually include animals. This process, what you could call Moral Circle Expansion, is I think one of the most important things. Yet, this is not necessarily driven by technology. It’s about philosophy, and ideas, and activism, and campaigning, et cetera.
Because you could imagine a world that is technologically highly sophisticated, but still has a quite narrow moral circle. You could imagine what today with highly advanced technology where we still have slavery, for example. There’s no technological reason why we abandoned slavery. Those are the two things that I would think of.
Dr. Hannah Ritchie
Head of Research, Our World in Data
I think it sounds like a very simple question of just what contributes to progress, what works, what doesn’t work. I think for some of the problems that we face, we do know what those elements are. Many countries have successfully solved problems, and it’s largely just a matter of replicating it elsewhere. I think for many problems, we actually just haven’t taken the time or invested the resources to actually drill into what actually worked and what didn’t work. So I think for a lot of problems, we know that progress has happened, because we can see the outcomes from it, but I think we haven’t put enough into understanding the elements that went into it. And I think across the problems we face, there are a couple of core elements that apply to almost every problem and some of those, the solutions need to scale, it needs to scale for billions of people. It needs to be affordable. If it’s not affordable, then it just won’t scale. It needs to be accessible, and the solutions need to have public trust to be able to get behind one.
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development
Progress is multifaceted, as I suggested. I think in some areas we have a really pretty strong notion of how to get more of it, especially when it comes to the material elements. More technology to more people is the short answer. With health, getting people vaccines, and access to the technologies of sanitation and so on. When it comes to the social and political elements, the non-stuff elements, if you will, the non-material elements, I don’t think we have quite as good a grasp of how to make sure that more people get more freedom faster, more respect faster, have more friends, have a more satisfying occupation, which is not to say those things aren’t happening. I just think we don’t have quite as clear and simple an answer about how to make them happen faster.
Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress
Yeah. So I think you can look at a few different measures. So in science, the government is the single largest funder of basic research and development spending. So this is where a large portion of university funding for research scientists comes from. And in terms of metrics, you can look at how much more productive we are becoming over time. Total factor productivity growth is one key measure to look at. That just really looks at by total factor, we mean for a fixed amount of labor and capital, how much output are we getting? And if we can get more output from the same amount of stuff, then we must be getting more productive over time and our institutions and technologies might be getting better.
CEO, New America
I do think there’s a utilitarian component, the greatest good for the greatest number. I think it is incumbent on anybody thinking about progress in a public context. And I run a public problem-solving organization. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about public policy.
Then I think progress has to include a dimension of how do we achieve maximum good for the maximum number of people? And then I’d add with minimum harm. Because you could achieve extraordinary good for 51%, and great harm for the other 49. That’s not my definition of progress.
So I think there’s a kind of universalist element depending on your polity. There’s a greatest good for element, again, this utilitarian calculation. But then there’s the “with minimum harm”. And in some context, if you could do great good for an enormous number of people, but kill a small number of people, those are the kinds of ethical dilemmas where at least people like me would say, that’s not justifiable. Of course, often we make those calculations, but we disguise them in all sorts of ways. But those are the elements that I think of.
The one other thing I would add that I have thought a great deal about is that, I don’t think we ever get to achieve our ideals. So I don’t think we ever get fully to the destination. And that means, for me, progress must always include an element of honest reckoning with why the last time we tried to surge forward, we didn’t succeed. And in some cases, we actually fall back.
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap
In terms of the elements of progress, I think we need knowledge, primarily of causal relationships and the physical world and the social world. I also think we need to be able to decipher and understand complexity, which means the chain reactions between these causes and effects as they spill over across domains. Then I think we also need capacity, which is the material or the physical tools to implement those conceptual breakthroughs that we have. We need coordination among people, among institutions and among nations.
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University
We know that at some level, economic progress is dependent on ideas. In the economic way of thinking, ideas are new recipes for combining inputs like labor and raw materials, and machines, and land into valuable stuff. As an economy gets better ideas over time, it gets more productive. A lot of economists think that productivity growth is slowing down because ideas are getting harder to find. Every time we make a discovery, we’re picking the lowest hanging fruit, and once we have picked the lowest hanging fruit, it’s gone and we have to work harder to get new ideas. And they think this dynamic of each subsequent idea being harder to find is a possible explanation for the slowdown in economic progress. Now, I think this theory is very unlikely to be true. It may or may not be true that ideas are getting harder to find in some fields, but that isn’t the reason for the slowdown.
Rather, it’s the ideas are getting harder to use. An idea by itself doesn’t produce anything. Remember the old saying about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? The idea is the 1% spark. And once you have that, there’s still a lot of work ahead to bring the idea into the world in a meaningful way so that it can contribute to productivity growth. I think that a lot of the ideas we’ve already had are getting stuck in the implementation phase. Between NIMBYism and other forms of public opposition and slow government decision-making and other regulatory and legal headaches, we’ve made it extremely difficult for an entrepreneur with an idea about how to do something meaningfully different in the physical world to succeed.
Founding Editor, Works in Progress
So there are material elements that are required for progress that are out of our control like having the right resources and having people who can extract energy, nutrition, and technology from them and are able to develop tools to achieve more progress. When we’re constrained by those resources, it can be very difficult to drive development. And it means that people have to make difficult trade-offs between growth and nutrition or the size of the population, for example, which is the idea behind the Malthusian Trap. But there are also things that people can do to drive progress in the right conditions to break away from those resource constraints and existing trade-offs.
So there are broad elements. One is being able to identify problems or areas where we can make improvements, explore different ideas and implement solutions to them. And part of this is about having an improving mindset. This is a phrase used by Anton Howes who is a historian of innovation to describe the attitude of many inventors during the industrial revolution. Another part is having the culture and policies that allow people to find those problems, explore ideas, and try out new solutions. And finally, having the ability to adapt when things change, when problems are discovered or when new problems arise.
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
I think it’s easy to answer that question by jumping into very specific policy ideas. But I think the macro idea here is about human freedom. It’s the freedom to create, to imagine, to build, and to fail. I think one of the big things squashing progress throughout history is people not having that freedom. So I mean, to me the basic formula is a freedom formula. I think that’s necessary. I don’t think it’s sufficient. I mean, we certainly also government to do things. We need government to protect our rights. We need government to do what governments generally do better, everything from defense to research, education. And I think my other macro idea is that we need to believe that we can change the future for better, and we need to be able to imagine a future, maybe not specifically, but in broad terms that is a better world than we’re currently living. Again, a future that we want to live in.
Professor of Economics, University of California at Berkeley
Well, technological power, and also a sense of what humans want in terms of reward and respect, in order that we organize ourselves in what Charlie from Trier said the goal was, “a free society of associated producers”. How close can we get to that? That is, people not only need to have stuff and social powers to achieve their purposes, they also need to feel that they’re respected and they also even more need to feel that they’re making a contribution. So those three elements have to be built on top of technological competence and excellence. And as for the utilization, as for the goals, well, to some degree, you’ve got to say, “Let 100 flowers bloom.” That progress will be when people can thoughtfully let their best selves choose what the goals they wish to accomplish in their lives are
Co-founder, Living Room Conversations
I’m personally focused on the ability to work together and address the most pressing challenges of the time. And it kind of starts with our deep division, and I’m focused on the US. This is happening worldwide, but where I have some cultural competencies here. And these divisions are contributing tremendously to our inability to address all sorts of complex challenges and even some really simple challenges we’re failing to take care of because we’re more focused on the fight than on creating solutions. Step one for me is, how are we going to start working together?