Bringing ideas to the world

Last week I attended the European Advisory Board meeting of Princeton University Press, the theme of the discussion being the role of university presses in the globalized 21st century. A while ago Sam Leith had an interesting article in the Guardian praising university presses for their stewardship of non-fiction publishing at a time when many commercial publishers have become fearful ‘me-too’ merchants. It could seem paradoxical: the university presses’ freedom from short term commercial pressure has created the conditions for longer term success, at least for some. Happily, Princeton University Press is one of those that’s thriving. There is a huge appetite for ideas, and the scholarly presses publishing books that address a wider audience than only academics and their libraries have been there to meet it. The appetite is also global, and again a small group of university presses have addressed the global market (much of PUP’s recent growth has been outside its home market in the US).

The other question is what will the ‘university’ part of ‘global university press’ look like in a decade or two? Higher education is ripe for disruption. It seems clear now this will not take the form of MOOCs, although they will have their market. Yet who knows what shape exactly it will take. One of my advisory board colleagues suggested publishing could be able to provide the true interdisciplinarity modern global issues require, whereas traditional university departmental silos discourage it. My hunch is that keeping a clear focus on the ‘product’ being the provision of ideas and scholarship to readers of all kinds around the world, and being agnostic about the exact means of delivering those ideas, will be the way to ride out disruptive technologies. A ‘freemium’ approach looks a good bet too: for example, the open access Digital Einstein website alongside the Quotable Einstein along with many other of his books for sale. (I note by the way there’s a holiday discount at the moment on purchases via the PUP website!)

My latest three books have been published by Princeton, and I’m delighted to be associated with such a distinguished purveyor of ideas to the world. During the holidays I’ll do my look ahead to forthcoming books in 2016 (publishers – do send me catalogues if you haven’t already) but here’s a trailer for just a few PUP titles for 2016: by William Goetzmann; by Robert Frank; and – just arrived at Enlightenment Towers, due for publicaiton on 27 January, Robert Gordon’s . I’m really looking forward to reading this over the holiday, & spoiling for a fight with Prof Gordon – but who knows, maybe he’ll win me over to his ‘innovation is so over’ thesis.

[amazon_image id=”B017MVYMSA” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0691167400″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”B0131KW67U” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)[/amazon_image]



Understanding innovation and growth

I’ve been dipping into the truly fascinating World Intellectual Property Report from WIPO, published last week. The overview chapter has a beautifully clear overview of economic growth, and the role of innovation and IP rights. The rest of the report falls into two sections: case studies of historical breakthrough innovations (airplanes, antibiotics, semiconductors); and case studies of newer innovations with breakthrough potential (3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics).

The lessons drawn should not be surprising but seem hard for people looking at future growth prospects to absorb. For example, big innovations can affect growth through several routes (for example with antibiotics by the impact on human capital); their economic transformations are far-reaching, unpredictable and can take a long time; all breakthough innovations require continuous follow-on innovations, both technical and organizational; the specifics of the innovation ecosystem matter greatly, and have a geographical dimension; the structure of the ecosystem will change as the technology matures, steadily involving more professional and formal structures. Interestingly, the historical examples suggest that the IP system made far less difference to the wide dissemination of the technologies than the absorptive capacity of each country.

The report is free to download and – unusually for such official reports – a very good read. Its case study approach is illuminating and I learned a lot about the technologies I’m less familiar with.

200 years of innovation

200 years of innovation


Standards, interoperability and innnovation in infrastructure

A request via Michelle Brook on Twitter: what has been written about the relationship – in the context of large scale infrastructure – between standards/interoperability and innovation? A quick search via Google Scholar revealed a few papers, mainly about communications networks. Other than that, all I could think of was Pierre-Richard Agenor’s . Oh, and also business history case studies such as Bernard Carlson’s terrific biography, Jon Gernter’s , or maybe by Geroski and Markides. But if others have other suggestions, please do add them – or let Michelle, @MLBrook, know.

[amazon_image id=”0691155801″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Public Capital, Growth and Welfare: Analytical Foundations for Public Policy[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0691165610″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1594203288″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0787971545″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Fast Second: How Smart Companies Bypass Radical Innovation to Enter and Dominate New Markets (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership)[/amazon_image]


Which way to the future?

I’ve enjoyed reading Bernard Carlson’s (although, as I confessed, skipping over the physics). How exhilarating to read about the exceitement as thousands of people crammed into lecture halls to hear Tesla speak about his discoveries. “The demand for seats was so great that tickets were being scalped outside the hall for three to five dollars,” Carlson writes of an 1893 lecture in St Louis (that’s $80-130 in today’s dollars).

[amazon_image id=”0691165610″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age[/amazon_image]

The book is particularly interesting on the lack of form and direction in the early stages of commercial development of a new technology. Standards had not been agreed. Different technical approaches seemed equally viable. Companies were forming – and going into receivership – and the investment risk was substantial. Rich investors (hello J.P.Morgan) were trying to corner new markets. Patent litigation was common.Tough choices had to be made between promoting ideas and licensing the patents versus holding patents and going into manufacturing.

In this confusion, sober analysis was insufficient to make technical and financial choices. What Carlson calls ‘illusion’, the building of sufficient belief in a single path to the future, was critical: “We need to understand and appreciate how inventors and entrepreneurs forge relationships that foster a balance between imagination and analysis.” The inventor has to inspire his (or her) backer, the businessman has to keep the creative genius grounded (no pun intended). One could see it as creating the focal point in a game with many possible outcomes, and hence sometimes the phenomenon of to what might be not the best technical outcome.

So, a fascinating read on the early development of an important new technology, as well as an extraordinary character. As the book observes, there was always a kind of minority interest in Tesla, a real maverick; but he deserves this fine biography.


Inventors and manufacturers, and their economics (Version 1.0)

Courtesy of Anton Howes (his economic history blog is here) and Marc Andreessen, here are other works of political economy written by 19th century people who could and did make things. There is obviously a rich vein of literature to revisit here. This post is now updated with better links, also courtesy of Anton.

Here is his list, with his comments and a few notes from me.

“The one that immediately sprang to mind was the chemist Andrew Ure (1778-1857) and his (1835). (Free online copy.) I believe he had other works on political economy too.

[amazon_image id=”5519176558″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Philosophy of Manufactures[/amazon_image]

My note: Here’s another, :

[amazon_image id=”1231159510″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The cotton manufacture of Great Britain systematically investigated Volume 1; with an introductory view of its comparative state in foreign countries[/amazon_image]

And a free online copy.

(1739-1808) had quite a few writings on political economy, apparently anticipating Ricardo. Here is Observations on the means of exciting national industry. My note:  this article says he critiqued Adam Smith.

John Marshall (1765-1845), the flax spinning pioneer, wrote a book called The Economy of Social Life in 1825. I’m not sure if it’s on political economy, but he certainly lectured on the topic later on in life.

(1754-1835), the agricultural pioneer and writer, had quite a few works touching on political economy and the national finances. He was apparently a notorious bore offering unsolicited advice on the latter topic in particular. Here is his History of the Public Revenue of the British Empire.  (1741-1820) may have similar works, but was a little more focused on just agriculture.

[amazon_image id=”1170437060″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Account of the origin of the Board of Agriculture, and its progress for three years after its establishment. By the president.[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”B00A1V6SOA” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]An Account of the Systems of Husbandry Adopted in the More Improved Districts of Scotland: With Some Observations On the Improvements of Which They … Agriculture with a View of Explaining How F[/amazon_image]

(1619-1684), the metallurgist and civil engineer, has quite an interesting work called “England’s Improvement by Land and Sea: how to Beat the Dutch without Fighting” (2 vols., 1677–81). Quite interesting, particularly for the time. Here is the free online copy.

[amazon_image id=”1152894218″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]England’s Improvement by Sea and Land[/amazon_image]

John Chapman (1801-1854), the inventor of the cab, had quite a few well-known (at the time) works on the political economy of India. May well be considered one of the earlier development economists! Here’s The Cotton and Commerce of India.

The actuarial and navigational pioneer Francis Baily (1774-1844) had quite a few works on political economy. One that sticks out as sounding quite interesting is called “The Rights of the Stock Brokers Defended Against the Attacks of the City of London” (1806)

Another actuarial pioneer, Robert Wallace (1697-1771), was also very prolific writing about demography and political economy. One that sounds quite intriguing is called (1753). Here’s the free online version.

[amazon_image id=”1140998420″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]A dissertation on the numbers of mankind in antient and modern times: in which the superior populousness of antiquity is maintained. With an appendix, … on Mr. Hume’s Political discourse, …[/amazon_image]

A lot of people also tend to overlook ‘s (1723-1791) contributions to economics. They’ve been largely overshadowed by his radical political and theological works. But it was he who originally proposed and then advised on the National Debt sinking fund, as well being the person to promote Bayes’ work on statistics and probabilities. Here is Observations on the Debt.

[amazon_image id=”1170181791″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]An appeal to the public, on the subject of the national debt. The second edition. With an appendix, … By Richard Price, D.D. F.R.S.[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”B00FDVBZHI” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Observations on Reversionary Payments: On Schemes for Providing Annuities for Widows, and for Persons in Old Age; On the Method of Calculating the Values of Assurances on Lives; And on the National Debt. Also, … a PostScript on the Population of the Kin (Paperback) – Common[/amazon_image]

You may also be interested in the works of William Cobbett (1763-1835). [Me: best known name on this list.] He’s on my list as an agricultural pioneer, but he’s better known as a political radical and for compiling what would later be better known as Hansard. In 1815 he wrote something called , (available here too) but there are many other works on economics and political economy.”

[amazon_image id=”1172783411″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Cobbett’s Paper against gold: containing the history and mystery of the Bank of England, the funds, the debt, the sinking fund, the bank stoppage, the … shewing, that taxation, pauperism, poverty,[/amazon_image]

Many thanks to Anton for those. And from Marc via Twitter (@pmarca), this one by David Wells, Recent Economic Changes and Their Effect on the Production and Distribution of Wealth and the Well-Being of Society.