Economics of Innovation


Every time humans invent better ways of doing things, the economy gets a little bigger. This is a simple idea. The cave dwellers discovered that they did not have to travel as much hunting and gathering if they could sharpen a rock enough to chop a tree down for firewood or for spearing animals.  That same tool helped them to dig holes to plant seeds.  By growing food and domestication animals, they could stay in one place and conserve energy.  By living in cities, the division of labor led to more efficiency as the farmer, metal smith and rancher bartered their services.  Enough surpluses were created so that a leisure class was free to develop philosophical thought leading to early scientific principals.

After a while, the invention of the printing press greatly advanced the availability of formal education.  In the Early 1800’s, Eli Whitney stunned the world first with the cotton gin and then with his concept of “interchangeable parts” where he disassembled ten working muskets, scramble the parts and reassembled ten working muskets.  What seems trivial today lead to great advances in the industrial revolution, becoming further refined in the manufacturing economy.  Computers then ushered in the Era of Information followed by the knowledge economy that we live in today.

At each stage, there was a quantum leap in human productivity and financial wealth.  Obviously the two are related.

If we look at this history from the big picture, we notice that each level of human development was derived from the prior level by integrating the tools of that prior level.  As such, the knowledge economy was derived from the information era by integrating the computer tools leading to the Internet.  The agrarian economy was derived from the hunter-gatherer tribes by integrating the wheel, wedge, and lever into agriculture and livestock.  The industrial revolution integrated scientific principles from the Renaissance. This is fairly consistent.

If we look at this history from a microscopic view, we see that no single idea drove human development, rather, billions upon billions of little ideas from many diverse sources combined in unique ways to form larger ideas which then combined to form even larger advances eventually leading to those big innovations that we see as the milestones above.

Also, we notice that the over time, rate of change at which these ideas have been combining is getting faster and faster.  The hunter-gatherer phase lasted 2 million years, The agrarian age lasted about 40,000 years. The scientific revolution lasted 1500 years.  The knowledge economy is barely a single generation in play.

These are important concepts because later, when we build a mathematical model for the next economic paradigm, we will use a few tricks of calculus called the “derivative” and the “integral” to describe how things change over time so that we can measure and analyze productivity and wealth creation in the new economy.

Finally, we ask, what comes after the knowledge economy?  There are two things that we can be certain of.  The next great leap in economic development will be derived from the knowledge economy by integrating the tools that we developed in this knowledge economy.  I strongly suspect that computer enabled society – or social networking will have something to do with it.

Welcome to the Innovation economy.

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