State of the Union January/February 2007

Mapping Innovation

To find the next great ideas, follow the tractors, tourists, and drinkers.

Predicting innovation is something of a self-canceling exercise: the most probable innovations are probably the least innovative. The history of humankind’s development can be summed up as the story of surprise. Adam Smith failed to forecast the Industrial Revolution despite his friendship with James Watt, inventor of the steam engine that powered it. And who would have prophesied MySpace, Oprah, or a TSA ban on hair-styling gel in quantities greater than three ounces?

But even if we can’t see what innovations are around the corner, maybe we can at least predict what places are likely to be the most innovative in the future. And an innovative tool called Worldmapper might help.

Worldmapper was created by geographers from the University of Sheffield’s Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group (There’s an innovative college major!) and by Mark Newman, a physicist at the University of Michigan. It allows them to turn all sorts of obscure statistical information into vivid pictures. Countries look skinny or fat according to their share of wealth or trade or population, but retain their familiar national boundary shapes. The results are often cartoonish, but nonetheless scientifically precise. Perhaps a decidedly unscientific tour through a few of Worldmapper’s more than 200 maps will help us see which countries are best endowed with the stuff of future innovation—and whether the United States has a fat or a skinny future.

MOTHER IS THE NECESSITY OF INVENTION

No place can be innovative without children. This is not because of the platitudinous link between youth and creativity; the children’s art on my refrigerator suggests there isn’t any. Ben Franklin was no kid when he invented bifocals. Henry Ford, by all accounts, seems never to have been youthful. But countries with children, demographers predict, will have adults. India, China, and the nations of Africa and South Asia are in the lead, as the Total Children map shows. Note, however, that there are adequate numbers of children elsewhere, even in supposedly child-proof Europe and Japan, and plenty in the United States. And not every child will grow up to be an innovative adult.

Each child is biologically required to have a mother. Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact. What kind of woman is best at lovingly fostering the potential in children? Let us sidestep sociological, economic, and feminist arguments and posit simply a woman who is herself beloved. Quantification of that is difficult, and Worldmapper hasn’t tried. But two of its maps, one almost the exact inverse of the other, are nonetheless telling: Women in Agriculture (the number of female farm laborers) and Tractors Working. It’s good when a society values women, not so good when it values women because they are cheaper than a John Deere.

The United States and Western Europe excel in the ratio of farm machinery to women farmworkers. They also excel—as do Japan, South Korea, and South Africa—in another statistic: Female Managers. A country is more likely to be innovative when 100 percent of its population, instead of 50 percent, has an opportunity to innovate. Whether the girls and boys of that country are better off with executive moms is sometimes debated. But whether women should have an influence on children is not debatable, and a country with influential women is, perforce, a country with women who influence.

OBVIOUSLY INNOVATIVE

There is a kind of thinker known as a MOTO, a “Master of the Obvious.” MOTOs are hired by the hundreds as editorial writers and news commentators. Though always boring, they aren’t always wrong. And it would be a violation of MOTO principles to ignore research and development as a predictor of innovation.

In per capita R&D spending, the United States, the wealthier Western European nations, Israel, Japan, and South Korea are giants. In gross spending (see Total R&D Expenditures), China is Brobdingnagian enough, and Brazil and South Africa are midsized titans on otherwise rather un-innovative continents.

But what are the researchers researching and the developers developing? Cold fusion or YouTube? A cure for malaria or for flatulence? We can’t know the future worth of a country’s R&D. We can, however, inspect that country’s track record. The map of Royalties and License Fee Exports gives a picture of where past R&D has been valuable enough that other countries buy it. Gangway for the United States of America! Sorry about that, Japan. Way to go, feisty runners-up Great Britain, Sweden, and France.

A LITTLE EDUCATION …

Education is another MOTO indicator, albeit an occasionally dubious one. More years of education do not always yield more innovative thinking, as anyone who has suffered through a Harvard cocktail party can attest. Thomas Edison dropped out of school at age seven. Whoever invented the wheel had no school out of which to drop. Socrates didn’t go to a university; he was one.

Education, however, does change minds. And a new mentality is a more significant invention than the moldboard plow or the semiconductor. Not much was really invented during the Renaissance, if you don’t count modern civilization.

Currently, spending on education lines up about as you’d expect: rich countries spend more than poor ones. But for purposes of futurism, growth in educational spending may be more to the point. The Secondary Education Spending Growth map shows total increases for children aged eleven to seventeen—the time when kids start getting a mind of their own (necessary to innovation, however annoying it is to parents). Here the future seems to belong to Western Europe, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Latin America, the northern and southern (but not the central) parts of Africa, and New Zealand. By comparison, America and Australia are idling or stalled.

But another map, Primary Education Spending Growth, gives Yanks and Aussies some hope. Expenditures shown here include preschool programs. Some educators claim that that’s when the mind is truly formed. But do you want to hear the engineers building your high-speed particle accelerator say, “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten”?

Presented by

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In