State of the Union January/February 2007

Mapping Innovation

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

Innovation is necessary to progress, and progress is, we tend to think, necessarily linked to prosperity. But if we look at the most innovative nation in history to date—our own—we see that the most distinctive American innovations were the products of poverty. Bluegrass, gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, country and western, rock and roll, and hip-hop are the music of poor people. American slang, American style, American fashions and fads have their sources among the least affluent. America’s car culture, teen culture, sports culture (and drug culture and gun culture) were shaped by what, in other countries, would be called the lower classes.

One secret to this sort of innovation is rich poor people. To be on the poverty threshold in the United States ($9,973 per year for a single adult) is to be richer than most people in the rest of the world (per capita global average GDP is $8,229). A nation’s poor can’t be innovative if they’re famished. Famine takes too much time and energy.

The other secret is what sociologists would call agglom­eration and what we’d call a ghetto, inner city, or slum. Poor people are creative by themselves, but put a lot of them together and the result is brilliant—African American artistic genius in the Harlem Renaissance, Jewish intellectual genius on New York’s Lower East Side, Irish political genius among the ward heelers and block captains of Boston’s South End.

The Living on US$20 to $50 a Day map shows where people are poor but not so miserably poor that they’re sunk in inertia and despair. The world is well supplied with folks of modest means even in Russia, which has previously been inconspicuous on our innovation maps. Such places as central Africa, Madagascar, Haiti, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma seem too poor to harbor innovative forces. And only Scandinavia seems too rich.

But the “Living on US$20 to $50 a Day” map needs to be correlated with the Slum Growth map. It then becomes clear that the greatest potential for innovation from below is in Central America, Peru, Turkey, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, China, South Korea, and the Philippines. Be on the lookout for an Incan/Mayan/Muslim/Confucian Manila dance craze.


The poor are an especially important resource for innovation when they have the bravery and pluck to get out of the poor places in which they’re living. Moving around may be the single most innovative thing that humans do—for good or ill. Our species spread from Africa into the cradle of civilization (a very messy crib at the moment). The scruffy hill tribes of the Tiber conquered the world. The scruffier barbarians conquered them. Mongols with nothing but a few horses to their name swept across Asia. Hungry mammoth-hunters migrated to America from one end of the earth, and their gold-hungry cousins “discovered” it from the other. The results have been innovative in the extreme.

The Net Immigration map gives a fairly predictable prediction of future innovation. People are moving to places that have the good life from places where life is not so good. The United States, Canada, Western Europe, Israel, and the posher and more peaceful areas of the Arabian Peninsula account for almost 80 percent of the world’s net immigration. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia are also gainers. And certain unprepossessing countries in even less prepossessing regions—Venezuela, Costa Rica, Russia, South Africa, and Tanzania—are acquiring brave, plucky innovators.

But other movements in human populations are far less innovative. These are the waves of tourists. To be a tourist is to express rank conservatism. Tourists seek the “unspoiled.” No one is as offended as a tourist when a warren of crumbling adobe is leveled to make way for a KFC or when a colorful peasant woman is replaced by a working tractor. The Net In-Tourism map shows places where visits from tourists exceed the tourist travel of the residents. Thus is sapped the innovative potential of France, Spain, Austria, Italy, Mexico, the Caribbean, southern Africa, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and China.


Given all the very rigorous research compiled by Worldmapper, what totally un-rigorous conclusions can we draw? A rough tally of quick impressions of arbitrarily chosen criteria indicates that only about a dozen countries or regions are likely to be innovative in the near future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe loom largest. But South Korea and South Africa keep popping up strongly as well, and so do Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other places.

All of which is mirrored, at least tolerably closely, by the Alcohol and Cigarette Imports map. That’s one more thing about innovation: it’s very stressful. And who, among the world’s innovators, are so stressed that they have to bring in stress relief from overseas? That would be the Americans, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the South Koreans, and the Continentals in Western Europe. You folks look like you need a drink. Innovation is a damn big job. Congratulations. Have a cigar.

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke

P. J. O’Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book, On the Wealth of Nations, has just been published.

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