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How do you define progress?

As with any “big idea” progress means a lot of different things to different people and not everyone comes into the discussion with the same priors. Some experts are primarily focused on material progress while others emphasize the importance of moral progress. So to start the discussion, we asked each expert to define the term as they see it from their specific vantage point.

Rutger Bregman

Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author

I guess, as a historian, I have a fairly simple view of what progress is. In the first place, it’s all about fewer kids dying. Still, today, there are millions of kids around the world dying from easily preventable diseases. A lot of work to be done there. 

Then, on the other hand, we have made extraordinary progress when it comes to the incredible increase in life expectancy or the enormous decline in extreme poverty or child mortality. A lot of that progress is very, very recent. It’s really a story of the last 30 to 40 years. People don’t realize that, but in the 1980s, for a terrible disease like measles, for example, only 20% of the world population was vaccinated. Now, it’s more than 80%. We’ve done heroic things, such as eradicating smallpox. A lot of that progress is quite recent.

“We have made extraordinary progress when it comes to the incredible increase in life expectancy or the enormous decline in extreme poverty or child mortality.”

Dr. Hannah Ritchie
Head of Research, Our World in Data

I think progress is looking at the factors that improve the living standards of humans. And I think that takes on a variety of forms. I think it ranges from global health and wellbeing to educational opportunities to economic opportunities. And I think most economists or people in the progress study space would probably define it in terms of living standards for humans. I think as an environmental scientist, I would also broaden that to include other species and ensuring that progress is sustainable for future generations. I think that’s an important dimension that we don’t forget that we have the capacity to undo the progress and living standards for humans for future generations if we don’t take that into account.

Charles Kenny
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

So, for me, progress is about sustainable development in the quality of human life, and so that’s got material elements like health and having enough nutrition and access to infrastructure and so on. But also about freedom and a sense of wellbeing and access to knowledge and a fulfilling occupation and a bunch of friends and subjective wellbeing. You put all of that together and get more of it. I call that progress.

Alec Stapp

Co-Founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress

Yeah. So in my day job running a think tank in Washington, D.C., we really focus on progress in terms of scientific, technological and industrial progress. We think that those are key types of progress that can have a material and tangible impact on people’s lives in a really big way while also being directly affected by government policy.

“We really focus on progress in terms of scientific, technological and industrial progress.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter

CEO, New America

Progress in its most basic sense means advancing toward a goal. That goal though could be a bad goal, and you’d still be making progress toward it. But progress means you’re going forward toward a goal, and regress means you’re going backward. The newspaper in my hometown of Charlottesville is called the Daily Progress, and my father always called it the ‘Daily Regress’. So it’s a very simple word in that sense.

The complication comes when we think of, all right, but don’t we mean a good goal? And generally, I think as is the way most people talk about it, they mean a good goal. But that then immediately raises the question of good for whom? And so when we talk about progress, you need to know who’s the we, what is the progress toward, and who will that goal benefit? And that’s where things get really sticky.

“When we talk about progress you need to know [who it is for], what the progress is toward, and who will benefit. And that’s where things get really sticky.”

Parag Khanna
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap

I would define progress as sustained civilizational advancement. It can’t be only material and it can’t merely be temporary. It should be broad in scale. It should encompass not only humanity, but also our broader environment and not just one society, but spilling over across boundaries. This is what the historian Arnold Toynbee meant when he used the phrase, “Civilization with a big C.” He meant all of us as one capital C civilization, not just particular ones.

“I would define progress as sustained civilizational advancement. It can’t be only material and it can’t merely be temporary.”

Eli Dourado
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

Well, there’s different kinds of progress. There’s moral progress, social progress, artistic progress, scientific progress, and those can all be pretty hard to define. Fortunately, I work on economic progress or material progress or industrial progress, and that’s easier to boil down to one statistic. And the one I use is called total factor productivity. So total factor productivity is basically how much output does your economy produce with a fixed basket of inputs? Over time, the US economy is getting better at turning inputs into valuable outputs, and that is what economic progress is all about. But there are troubling signs on the horizon. For one, the rate at which TFP is growing in the US is slowing down. And in some European countries it is actually declining. So these countries are getting worse at producing stuff as time marches forward.

“There’s moral progress, social progress, artistic progress, scientific progress, and those can all be pretty hard to define.”

Saloni Dattani
Founding Editor, Works in Progress

I define progress as a set of values that we care about. So people feeling healthier, happier, freer, and more fulfilled with their lives and living in an environment that flourishes and is sustainable in the long term.

Jim Pethokoukis
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

To me, progress means everyone can… It really goes back to the founding of the United States, that big idea, the idea about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So I think progress is a greater ability to pursue happiness as each person defines it. The more modern version of that is pursuing a life worth living, which we can define. The economist in me would define it as the average median income, that kind of thing. But it can be a lot of things. It could be a healthier future, a wealthier future. But I think fundamentally it’s a future where people have more opportunity to create a world that they want to live in.

Brad DeLong
Professor of Economics, University of California at Berkeley and author, Slouching Towards Utopia

Well, I’d very much say it has three elements. The first element, is getting out from under the hammer of necessity, which for most of the human race has been the harrow of Malthus, living in a world in which you see half your babies die, your life expectancy is 25, you go to bed at hungry lots of the time, and an awful lot of your planning has to be simply, “How do I keep this biological machine going for one day?” And progress is getting out of that, and acquiring power to manipulate nature, and then also power to successfully, and politely, and peacefully organize humans, to actually get things done. So, first it is power to escape from necessity, and enter a kingdom of freedom. 

The second element, is that if it’s going to be progress, it has to be relatively egalitarian. That is elite of thugs with spears or laser guns assisted by tame accountants, propagandists, and bureaucrats, running a force-and-fraud exploitation, and extraction, and domination rift regime over other people. That’s not a progressive thing. It may have great technological powers, but Ming, emperor of Mongo, is not what we’re headed for.

And third, there’s the question of actually using your power to manipulate nature and figure out how to organize ourselves, so we can actually have a sophisticated functioning, hence highly productive division of the labor, figuring out what we then want to do, in order that we live lives is worth living.

Joan Blades
Co-Founder,  Living Room Conversations

Well for me, when I think about progress, I’m often thinking about human relationships and that we have become so distrustful of each other and seeing the worst in each other, in fact. And progress for me is when we can connect and care about people that we disagree with.

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And the faith community has really put it in a way that speaks to me, which is seeing the divinity in everyone. I may not be a part of the faith community, but there is a ring of deep truth to that for me.

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.

Click here to browse all the questions »


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