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Progress

What are the easiest opportunities for progress in your opinion? What are the areas in which a few critical interventions or changes could unlock a disproportionate amount of progress?

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? 

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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 »


Rutger Bregman
Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author

There’s an enormous amount of love hanging fruit. If you want to see that, you got to start with switching off the news, because the news is all about the things that people already focus on. Some of the things on the news are really, really bad, such as climate change. The chance that you as an individual make a huge difference there is rather small.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t take up a career in fighting climate change, but maybe there are other opportunities out there that could have a much, much bigger return because very few people focus on it. To give you a couple of examples, AI safety is probably extremely important to focus on because the development of artificial intelligence will be one of the most important advances in all human history.

We have no clue how to do that safely right now. There are very few people, I think just a couple of hundred people around the world who are thinking about that question. That could be enormously important, or think about research into synthetic biology and fight against viruses that could emerge naturally or escape from the lab. I think we need so many more defensive technologies there to protect us against the next COVID, which may be much, much worse. If you see how much the world is investing in that right now, I mean, it’s bizarre. COVID cost us trillions of dollars, it was incredibly expensive, and it cost millions of lives, obviously.

Then if you look how many people are devoting their careers to fighting the next pandemic or just how much we spend on preventing the next pandemic, it’s pretty bizarre if you ask me. That’s, I guess we’ve got to do, look for the low hanging fruit. Certainly, I obviously have to mention the fact that still millions of kids are dying from easily preventable diseases. There’s just so much still to be done there, and we know the solutions. Maybe they’re not sexy, like distributing malaria bed nets. We know it works. We’ve got an enormous mountain of research that shows it works. It’s fairly cheap. You just got to do it.

I guess that’s our job here, identify the low hanging fruit.

“There are other opportunities out there that could have a much, much bigger return because very few people focus on it.”

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

I think for me the biggest one that could have the biggest spillover impact is being able to unlock really scalable, low-carbon energy. I think if we could solve that, it would change the world in just immeasurable ways. So whether that’s a nuclear fusion breakthrough, which we’ve been waiting for for a long time, or it’s further developments in renewables, I think the number of challenges that you could address if you just had really scalable, low carbon cheap energy are just massive. Whether that’s desalinization of water or air filtration for stopping the spread of viruses or carbon removal from the atmosphere. There are just so many opportunities that could be unlocked or are currently being blocked by just really high energy costs.

“I think the number of challenges that you could address if you just had really scalable, low carbon cheap energy are just massive.”

Charles Kenny
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

I’m really quite optimistic about problems like climate change. I think it’s a big problem but one we can really deal with, and partially that’s because it is basically a material problem. It’s a problem that can actually be solved with better use of technology, so zero carbon cement, zero carbon energy sources, and so on. And we seem to be doing remarkably well in creating those technologies. I say remarkably well because I think we should have been spending a lot more time and energy on doing it. But even the time and energy we’ve been spending has been delivering some fairly impressive results. And so I’d go all in on solving those material problems. I think we know how and we can do it and it would be really good us and the planet.

Alec Stapp
Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress

Across a wide variety of industries, you can really think of human capital and human talent being upstream of all of them. And so immigration is often seen as a highly controversial issue, which it is in the United States current political environment, but there is a corner of it, high skilled immigration, particularly stem immigration for people with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, where there actually is quite a lot of bipartisan agreement in Washington, D.C. that this is a kind of immigration we should be increasing and at least shifting our composition of immigration towards these workers over time. And so I think you could see a lot of really concrete, specific reforms in the near future to increase those talent flows in the United States. And that would be helpful in a wide variety of industries, help us solve a lot of problems. And really in the modern economy, brains are often the limiting factor. And that’s also, again, how we say ahead of countries like China, that don’t have much of any immigration from abroad.

“In the modern economy, brains are often the limiting factor.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter
CEO, New America

I think going local is the answer to the crisis of faith that we actually can do things. You did see during the pandemic, the flowering of mutual aid societies, and the ability of people and communities to say, we’re going to take care of one another, even in the face of conflicting government signal, or simply lack of capacity, lack of equipment. And I think that we’ve often lost that sense of what can we do together as a community?

And that’s even harder as many of us become remote workers, because we’re parts of many different communities. But if I sit in Princeton, New Jersey and I think about what Princeton, New Jersey can accomplish, or what Trenton, New Jersey can accomplish. I find a sense of palpable achievement that I think has been lost even at the state level or the federal level. That’s all the more important for our younger people, for our kids who are at the mercy of technological forces and sociological forces.

So I do think in many ways, we ought to look for progress in terms of what tangibly can you achieve on the ground? The Ashoka Foundation has been doing this forever, we’re really showing people in high school or even younger. Here’s what you can achieve if you work together, here’s tangible progress. Now, do this on a slightly bigger scale.

“I think going local is the answer to the crisis of faith that we actually can do things.”

Parag Khanna
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap

I think the low hanging fruit is in functional domains, technological domains. A key priority given our present challenges would be safe nuclear power, for example, and using it not only for energy, but also of course for water desalination, which is another resource related problem. I’d also prioritize 3D printed housing, for example, which is again about materials and about production, but it’s also about human wellbeing in social life. It’s in terms of 3D printed housing. It’s much more sustainable, cheaper, and even portable in ways that conventional housing isn’t.

To take the whole point about a holistic integrated agenda, think about putting these things together. We have kicked off these chain reactions in terms of climate change that we’re struggling to respond to and anticipate from a complexity perspective and yet one obvious, not perhaps not so obvious long term response, is to have portable power generation that is nuclear and safe and sustainable to apply it to water desalination, but needing to relocate populations to where water is given the climate effects, such as drawing up rivers and then having mobile communities, physical housing that are built through 3D printing, rather than pouring concrete into the ground and fixed settlements.

You take two functional technological interventions that don’t seem like they have a lot to do with each other, but in fact only by putting them together, are you actually anticipating complexity and generating real reliable progress well into the future, despite whatever those future circumstances might be. 

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

Well, I don’t any of this is easy. I do think a couple of ideas have a bit of political momentum with growing numbers of wonks in both major parties in the US accepting that there are serious problems, and those are land use regulation and permitting reform. If we could get meaningful liberalization in those two areas, I think it would do quite a lot of good. So with land use reform, we could lower rents in our most productive cities, freeing up resources to invest in new ideas, and creating opportunity for more talented people. With permitting reform, there are a lot of times when agencies could be ready to approve a project within months, but because of the procedural requirements of laws like NEPA and CEQA and other laws, it takes them years. So if we can exempt more projects from these strenuous procedural requirements mean faster deployment of infrastructure, new energy technologies, new transportation systems, et cetera.

“I do think a couple of ideas have a bit of political momentum with growing numbers of wonks in both major parties in the US [on] land use regulation and permitting reform.”

Saloni Dattani
Founding Editor, Works in Progress

I can talk about scientific progress as that’s something I focus on in my research and writing. So one of the opportunities is streamlining. So being able to combine the costs of different projects into one while still having some flexibility. One example of this is the recovery trial in the UK, which was used to test many different COVID treatments at the same time by recruiting people to be treated with any of them through the UK’s national healthcare system. This massively reduced the costs and it meant that we were able to identify which treatments out of several worked in a very easy and less expensive way. Another opportunity is having the ability to communicate rapidly. Most scientific research today is published in scientific papers because before the Internet developed there was a tradition of sharing information through journals, but that is now a huge barrier to communication. When researchers submit a paper to a journal it takes an average of nine months for it to be published in the Natural Sciences, for example, and three years in Economics. And that means that it takes a long time for other researchers to spot mistakes or build on those findings and results. And so if scientists shared research on other platforms like GitHub instead, or developed new ways of doing peer review with more people across the world it would become much easier and faster to build upon other research and quickly spot errors that people have made.

“Most scientific research today is published in scientific papers because before the Internet developed there was a tradition of sharing information through journals, but that is now a huge barrier to communication.”

Jim Pethokoukis
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

So many things that people suggest that we do, whether it’s we need to do a lot more research and development, or people who want us to make more chips in the United States, or people just, “Why can’t we build more infrastructure cheaper.” That requires human beings, that requires people. It requires broadly talented people. And if there aren’t enough here, then we need to get them from somewhere else. So clearly the lowest hanging fruit is something that we’ve been… Really one of our superpowers here in the United States is attracting talent. And we know how to do it, we just need to make it easier, make sure people think they’re welcome if they come here. But if we stop doing that, everything else gets a lot harder.

Joan Blades
Co-founder,  Living Room Conversations

Well, I got into this originally because climate, because living in Berkeley, I really didn’t understand where the opposition was to working with climate. And this is back in 2004. I was just curious. And what I’ve learned over time is that there’s way more agreement than we realize in around climate. There’s more and more agreement in their opportunities to create clean energy and really get to work right now. And we don’t agree on everything. And we may see different levels of concern, but the best thing we can do is to begin on the solutions we agree with and allow that path to unfold.

But there are agreements all over the place. One of the big surprises I had was in a living room conversation years ago with a co-founder of the tea party that we and his friends, in a living room conversation is like two friends each invite … two friends with different viewpoints each invite two friends for a conversation about a given topic. And we discovered that we were in complete agreement that there were way too many people in prison and the war on drugs is not a success. We have to use evidence based practices in the criminal …

So it’s the opportunities to actually work together, that’s when things are most possible. And when you get creativity. And we have to have agility for complex problems, you do more of what you don’t is working and less of what isn’t. And if you’re caught in this dynamic of fight, you don’t end up doing that.

“What I’ve learned over time is that there’s way more agreement than we realize around climate.”


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