I have been reading a lot recently about the United States having its best days behind it. I am not sure if this sentiment is the result of a book by Robert Gordon (The Rise and Fall of American Growth; The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War) or the book is a chronicle of the sentiment, but I believe that it is bunk. And, Mr. Gordon essentially makes this case for me.
A large portion of the book is devoted to telling the story of innovation in the US and how it changed the standard of living in the US unambiguously for the better. The innovations include: indoor plumbing, electricity, the telephone, rail shipping, the automobile— the list is long, impactful and not completely enumerated here.
The last part of the book seems to completely ignore the lessons of the first part, that the US has an enormously creative culture and that innovations come from unexpected places and at uneven intervals. That leaves me to believe, that while there are certainly plenty of challenges we still have plenty of opportunity to change the world.
From my own experience, I predict that the construction industry is capable of improving productivity by 40%. That is a $400-billion-dollar savings—for the US alone. In a review of Gordon’s book, Bill Gates, who is also (no surprise) optimistic about our future, notes that success in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s would save the economy and $236 billion per year. And, those are just two potential targets for innovation. The resources freed up from the productivity improvements (which are generally credited with improving standards of living) enumerated above frees up a lot of resources that could be redirected at some of the “intractable” issues that are seen as roadblocks to a better world.
And while it absolutely blows my mind that any talent is wasted on Pokémon Go and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, I know that some really high powered talent is working on real issues. I see it personally at the Chicago Innovation Exchange (and know it is happening elsewhere through networking and my reading) where the object is to facilitate the development of important innovations that are created by the University of Chicago’s faculty, students and staff. And, I assure you that there are no Kim Kardashian: Hollywood products in the mix.
I know that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed and that it is easy to feel pessimistic when you read the news each day, but there are many reasons to be optimistic.
As a person who spent the last couple of years of my career at Textura thinking about real innovation, that is innovation that is impactful both for the provider and the customer, I know that there are real opportunities to change the world and I was contemplating a very small (relatively speaking) target. I am pretty sure that there are people out there (and by that I mean in the United States) who are a lot smarter and a lot more creative than I would have targets that are a lot richer, so I believe that I am safe in being optimistic that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us!