Innovation and Economic Crises

This past week, I've look at the trends in U.S. innovation, commenting on Michael Mandel's powerful and compelling thesis about the deceleration and interruption of American innovation. With the help of my MPI team, I've tracked patent data since 1980, examined patent trends for U.S resident and foreign, non-resident inventors, and looked at the geographic distribution of patenting.

Overall, the trend in patenting is up - both in absolute numbers and controlling for population. Innovation has increased over the past decade, but not at the breakneck pace of the 1980s and 1990s. There have been two dips in patenting over the past decade - the first in the wake of the tech crisis of 2001 and the second, more recently, concurrent with the onset of the housing and financial bubbles and the subsequent economic crisis.

American innovation has shifted and become more geographically concentrated. Places like Silicon Valley and Seattle have seen a steady increase in innovation while older, industrial centers like Pittsburgh and Detroit have declined significantly. Innovation in large cities like New York and Chicago has stagnated. And American innovation has grown increasingly dependent on non-resident, foreign inventors.

Today, I focus on a broader historical question: How do economic crises affect American innovation? Does innovation slow down or speed up during periods of crisis?

Joseph Schumpeter long ago argued that crises were seedbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship. Innovations developed during crises generate the gales of creative destruction that launch new technologies, remake existing industries, and give birth to entirely new ones - setting in motion new rounds of economic growth. Economists Gerhard Mensch and Christopher Freeman have examined the historical timing of innovations, with Freeman famously arguing that the pace of innovation is actually relatively constant: Innovations bunch up during crises, only to be unleashed as economic conditions are restored.

The graph above is reproduced by economist Alfred Kleinknecht. It shows patent activity from 1750 to 1970. It tracks actual patents granted from 1901 to 2005. There are clear spikes in innovative activity during the Long Depression of the 1870s and 1880s and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The historical literature also suggests that crises are periods of significant innovation. Joel Mokyr and Naomi Lamoreaux have documented the rise of important innovations like the incandescent light, the steam turbine, and the transformer during the Long Depression. Economic historian Alexander Field finds the 1930s to be the "most technologically progressive" decade of the 20th century.

The chart below, compiled by the MPI's Patrick Adler based upon a reading of the historical literature, identifies some of the major innovations of the Long Depression and the Great Depression. If the past is any guide, we should expect some acceleration of innovation - and particularly of the dramatic innovation Mandel wants to see - in the coming decade.

The graph below, compiled by my colleague Charlotta Mellander, updates the story, charting patents granted per 10,000 people from the 1890s to 2007. The rate of innovation rose significantly after the Long Depression. It then dipped during the Great Depression before trailing off considerably during the World War II period. American innovation rebounded remarkably in the post-war period before trailing off in the 1970s. Since the early 1980s, however, American innovation has surged to record highs. There have been two dips in innovation in the 2000s. But as of 2007, innovation has fallen only slightly from its record pace.

Presented by

Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here

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