There is a vast literature describing the central role innovation plays in economic growth and human development. In fact, human progress can be mapped in relation to the invention of specific, transformative innovations including the wheel, fire, language, farming, the printing press, the engine, the telephone, the light bulb, penicillin, contraception, and the internet.
Many of the innovations with the greatest development impact share two things in common: (1) they enable individuals to overcome basic human limitations, and, (2) they contain within them the means of their own wide diffusion. The wheel and the engine enabled people and products to move more quickly, while the printing press, the telephone, and the internet allowed information to disperse wide geographic distances in seconds.
Many of the European and Northern American countries where these innovations originated and were developed still dominate the top spots on indices of both human development and innovation. For example, all top 10 spots on both the Human Development Index and the Global Innovation Index are held by European and North American countries with the exception of Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea. And the countries that score lowest on innovation are among the least developed, including Niger, Mali, Mozambique, Yemen, Guinea, and Ethiopia.
Jared Diamond argues that although some countries have advanced through innovation as a result of being “geographically blessed” with abundant resources that freed up time to experiment and design better ways of doing things, other countries gained access to innovations by creating cultures that are, open to innovation.
By investing in innovations that allow new ideas and technologies to spread easily, these countries advanced. According to Diamond, societies that embrace risk-taking, have a scientific outlook, tolerate diverse views, and accommodate “heretical” attitudes benefit more from innovations.
Friedrich von Hayek made a powerful argument in favor of societies where access to knowledge is widely diffused among the population and freely accessible to all, and William Easterly has consistently advocated that the freedoms that underpin the creation and distribution of knowledge are the foundations of development.