What comes after the Knowledge Economy?

Nick O’Donovan’s Pursuing the Knowledge Economy: A Sympathetic History of High-Skill, High-Wage Hubris is an interesting evaluation of the policy consensus of the 1990s and early 2000s concerning the opportunities afforded by digital technology and globalisation for a transition to better jobs in the western economies. My own 1997 book The Weightless World (25 years ago this year!) features as one of several capturing that economic policy zeitgeist, what the book terms (following Peter Hall) a ‘growth regime’ – “a set of economic policy ideas and assumptions that are underwritten politically by a distinctive coalition of supporters.” In other words, a mental model of how the economy can prosper that becomes the policy zeitgeist. (Although I’d challenge the focus of this concept on just firms and governments, as the concept ignores the household and voluntary sector, both large and being affected by digital.)

The book traces the historical evolution of the policy ideas, mainly the centre left (Blair & Brown in the UK, Clinton in the US), and the way the financial crisis torpedoed any optimism about new opportunities to upskill the workforce and create satisfying new jobs. It also politely critiques the knowledge economy analysis in itself, essentially for unfounded optimism about the scope for new technologies to complement rather than substitute for labour and for ignoring the transition costs associated with globalisation. O’Donovan also points out the policy blind spot – until very recently – about increasing market concentration and rent extraction. Just a few people have long pointed to this as a source of economic problems, among them Brett Christophers.

There certainly was plentiful hype – Thomas Friedman’s books leap to mind. I’d defend The Weightless World on the basis that it predicted greater spatial and income inequalities and paid attention to social tensions, and would argue that I was prescient (much too soon…) about gig employment patterns and new digital currencies. But I also overlooked the costs for some people of the reordering of global production, or at least assumed policy would be sensible enough to look after them. At the same time, the Knowledge Economy paradigm did encapsulate some significant changes under way in the structure of the economy. I think O’Donovan somewhat underplays the insights while rightly pointing out the irrational exuberance.

The book ends by linking the failure of the Knowledge Economy growth regime to post-2008 political polarisation, and hoping that the current period of disillusion and volatility will in fact prove an opportunity for a new, better “growth regime” to develop. Let us hope….

Screenshot 2022-07-10 at 09.55.25

Decarbonising travel – room for optimism?

Our new Perspectives title, Good To Go: Decarbonising Travel After the Pandemic by David Metz is out. It looks at how the pandemic has affected pre-existing trends in travel – not as much as optimists might have hoped, is his conclusion, although recognising that it is probably too early to know whether commuting patterns will change permanently. Nevertheless, improved neighbourhood planning and flexible working could capture some of the benefits of the pandemic years even if there is a significant reversion to the old normal.

However, One of David’s points is that people relish mobility, with faster travel always having translated into travel further. That means that tackling the contribution of transport to solving the climate challenge will need technological contributions. The book holds out some hope for electric vehicles and digital tools contributing to decarbonising transport. But as David points out, the system is complex, involving economics, demography, technology, policy and human behaviour. There is a lot of wishful thinking about how easy it will be to change. Complexity means (as so often in policy) there is no easy solution. The book outlines a range of investments and policy interventions that will be needed to decarbonise travel.

Good to Go? is a terrific addition to our Perspectives roster on transport: David’s previous book, Travel Fast or Smart?; Transport for Humans: Are we nearly there yet? by Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland; and Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain Has No Transport Policy and  Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere  by Christian Wolmar. They complement each other wonderfully  – a great collection for transport nerds! As a special offer for readers of this blog, all five (£71 if bought individually) are available for £45 plus postage if you email sam@londonpublishingpartnership.co.uk.

9781913019624-e1655710170750

 

Steering history?

I enjoyed Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality. There are of course lots of grand sweep of human history books around – Ian Morris, Walter Scheidel, Jared Diamond, James Scott, even Yuval Noah Harari, not to mention all the accounts of why modern growth came about – David Landes, Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey. And many more. So I was slightly trepidatious picking up yet another. However, it’s well worth it.

I hadn’t previously been familiar with Galor’s academic work on growth, shame on me, but find it persuasive. There’s a fundamentally simple story – albeit complex and contingent in how it plays out – about interaction between humans (individually and collectively) interacting with technology in a dynamic where change starts slowly and reaches a tipping point beyond which it accelerates. The collective aspect of this incorporates an institutional trade-off between innovation and cohesion: more diverse societies generate more ideas and innovations, but are less cohesive. The dynamic also embeds path dependence: where you can get to depends on where you start and how you got there in the first place. “We are all the product of, and all contend with, the repercussions of events and behaviours that began decades, centuries and even millennia before we were born.” This model underpins the narrative account in The Journey of Humanity.

Like others, Galor sees the early 20th century as an astonishing period of progress: “It is hard to comprehend the leap in the quality of life experienced by people across the globe.” He also highlights the role of radio: “Radio appears to have had a more dramatic impact on lifestyles and culture than any other invention preceding it.” And the BBC is only 100 years old this year – and still, thanks to the World Service, profoundly important in many low-income and/or remote places.

The book is also nicely written with plenty of stories and interesting nuggets of information. The challenge it poses is, of course, how to get from where we are – under the shadow of a long history – to a world where everybody has attained a high standard of living delivering good health, longevity and quality of life and catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss have been averted. The cogs are turning as they always have, but the vehicle can be steered.

71+YEgdMG-L._AC_UY436_QL65_

A quarter century of weightlessness

It’s 25 years since my first book The Weightless World was published, back in 1997. We were early adopters of the online world at home, and in my job (journalism for The Independent at the time) I had been reporting on technology companies. So when approached by an agent, I knew what the subject would be. How does it stand up to the test of time?

The headline is that the central metaphor, of economic value becoming increasingly intangible, was spot on. The role of ideas and intangibles in how economies progress has become ever more apparent – watch out for the new Haskel and Westlake book on this shortly. The material intensity of economic output has declined. At the same time, I missed two big issues: energy use and climate change; and the adverse trends in concentration in digital markets & the power of big tech. The tone is more upbeat than it might be if I wrote it now, although to be fair to myself The Weightless World does flag trade-offs and the transition costs of digital adoption.

I’m most impressed with my young self in looking at the chapter headings. It was a time of higher unemployment than now so jobs are a focus, including flexibility and what we now refer to as the gig economy. As one of the jobs chapters points out, the technology offered a lot of potential for changing patterns of work but to date it had operated solely in favour of employers, not individuals. Perhaps the pandemic and WFH will finally shift that balance. Other chapters cover the impact of digital on globalisation, economic geography and clustering in cities, the need for a new social contract, the role of the third sector and reforming government. For example, I was very clear that the need for more and more exchange of ideas would enhance clustering, as has indeed happened over the past quarter century.  I even flag up the increasing scope of increasing returns.

It’s highly embarrassing reading one’s old work, so I’m not going to recommend others go back to it. This post is just to pat myself on the back for having been in on the ground floor of the digital economy. I published the book too early, probably – prescience is no use if nobody pays attention! With luck, though, digital transformation will keep me busy for the next 25 years.

IMG_2237

Here I am in 1996, writing The Weightless World too early

Here I am in 1996, writing The Weightless World too early

 

How to invent ideas

I found Zorina Khan’s Inventing Ideas: Patents, Prizes and the Knowledge Economy very interesting. It uses an impressive assembly of empirical evidence about inventors, patents, the administrators and recipients of innovation prizes and awards, and industrial exhibitions – largely in the US, UK and France – to support a specific analysis of what enabled the US to become the most innovative and richest industrial nation from the late 19th century on. As she points out, much of the literature asks why Britain was the first country to experience an industrial revolution, so the question itself is distinctive.

Her argument is that compared with Europe, there were “dramatic differences in the new approach to growth that were manifested in early US policies.” The key difference – supported by the mass of evidence – is a far greater emphasis in the US on patents (as a market-oriented innovation system) rather than prizes and awards (an administered system). A second and consequential difference is the preponderance of incremental and commercially successful innovations in the US. “Elites have always mistrusted markets: wealth and influence often lead to the convistion that the insights of the favored fiew can outperform spontaneous co-ordination,” Khan observes. The US was strongly anti-elitist (at least in that era), whereas “the most significant variable affecting whether or not a British inventor received a prize was elite education at Oxford or Cambridge,” neither university at the time focused on technical or scientific excellence.

Along the way to supporting its argument that the marketplace of ideas beats elite technocracy, the book demolishes quite persuasively the recent trend toward innovation prizes as an effective incentive mechanism. Less persuasive is the argument that patent trolling is no greater a problem than it ever was (although there clearly was a lot of litigation over patents in the 19th century).

It also makes the point that European and American patent systems operated differently. The specific institutional details mattered. So the conclusion one could draw is that the underlying elitism of European societies and egalitarianism of the US does more to account for latter’s emergence as technological leader. In which case, the longer term outlook for the US staying at the frontier may be less rosy. In any case, much food for thought in the book, and fascinating empirical and historical detail.

41oRCed1IrL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_