How to measure innovation
June 8th, 2011
12:25 PM ET

How to measure innovation

Editor's Note: This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By John Cookson, CNN

Distance is measured in meters, time counted in seconds, and intelligence assessed by IQ, yet innovation lacks a standard unit of measurement.  Stand-in metrics for innovation, seven of which are listed below, help to fill this gap in measuring how new products and new processes have led to longer and better lives.

Those seven metrics are: (1) patents, (2) GDP, (3) energy captured, (4) R&D spending, (5) inventions, (6) urbanization, and (7) a social development index. Let's go through them one by one.

1. Patents

Innovation is quickly followed by desire to protect and profit from it, which makes patents a compelling proxy for measuring innovation.  Seventy-five percent of all patents filed, and seventy-four percent of all patents granted worldwide, happen in the patent offices of Japan, South Korea, China, Europe and the United States.

This year, for the first time, China is expected to become the world’s number one patent publisher, passing the U.S. and Japan in both total and basic number of patents.

Yet patent numbers alone do not separate the innovative ideas from the not-so-innovative ideas, the latter demonstrated by U.S. patent 6,368,227: a method for swinging on a swing.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

2. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Per Capita GDP

Economic output - both a nation’s GDP and as an individual share thereof - is another stand-in for measuring innovation.  The late British economist Angus Maddison calculated national GDP and per capita GDP numbers back several millennia.  His work shows how certain nations at certain times became innovation powerhouses.

Innovations in finance, shipbuilding and energy collection led to an economic boom in the early modern Netherlands, for example.

In 1500, GDP per person in the Netherlands was almost equal to that of the UK.  As the innovations listed above took hold in the Dutch economy, GDP per person doubled by 1600, and doubled again by 1700, at which point it was 1.7 times that of Britain’s GDP.

Read: Are we still an innovation nation?

It took until almost 1800 for the UK to catch-up with the smaller Netherlands in GDP per person, largely by implementing the innovation processes introduced in scale by the Dutch earlier.

3. Energy Captured

The history of innovation is also the history of humans using more energy.

Better agriculture has led to more and to more caloric food.  Transportation has become faster and capable of carrying more cargo.  And pulling electricity from hydrocarbons in the earth - as well as from sunlight, wind, and other sources - has allowed for more and for more complex technology.

Pinning so much human advancement on commanding more and more energy, the late American academic Earl Cook calculated the average energy captured per person, per day over the last few millennia.

Relatively constant from 1000 to 1600 (around 27,000 kilocalories per person per day), energy began an upswing in the 1700s.

At the dawn of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, individual energy capture reached 38,000 kcal per day, on its way to 92,000 kcal by the twentieth century, which introduced the agricultural and electrical revolutions.

Near the start of the twenty-first century, daily energy captured soared to 230,000 kcal, eight-and-a-half times the amount per person in the 1600s.

As Nathan Myhrvold said during a recent GPS interview, the twenty-first century will in part be defined by the developing world seeking to match the developed world in daily energy consumed.

4. R&D Spending

Another stand-in for innovation is funding of research and development.  Pharmaceutical companies spend a large percentage of their revenue on R&D, and the innovative offerings of this industry have been transformative for human life.

As historian Ian Morris writes in Why the West Rules - For Now, “In the richest countries doctors seem able to perform miracles - they can keep us looking young (in 2008, five million Botox procedures were performed in the United States), control our moods (one in ten Americans has used Prozac) and consolidate everything from cartilage to erections (in 2005 American doctors wrote 17 million prescriptions for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra.)”

Yet as Fareed Zakaria writes in TIME magazine, R&D is not synonymous with innovation.

An innovation darling, Apple spends relatively little on R&D, a fifth of what Microsoft spends as a percentage of revenue, and less in total over the last decade than Microsoft spent in fiscal year 2010 alone.

5. Important Inventions Per Person Per Year

Pentagon physicist Jonathan Huebner measures innovation by calculating the number of important products produced each year and dividing that number by the world’s population.

Using this model, Huebner finds results at odds with common assumptions about the accelerating pace of innovation in recent years.

Read: Rebellion of an innovation mom.

Innovation peaked back in 1873, according to Huebner, and has been declining ever since as technology reaches natural limits of efficiency and economic feasibility.  “We are at an estimated 85% of the economic limit of technology,” Huebner writes, “and it is projected that we will reach 90% in 2018 and 95% in 2038.”

6. Urbanization

In 2008 the number of people living in urban areas surpassed half of the world’s population for the first time in history.  Rapid urban growth, which began in force in the 1950s, has seen new cities bloom and established cities expand and evolve.

This growth has earned comparisons to complex organisms, similar in kind to the growth and death within a biological system.  Yet with biological systems from microorganisms to large mammals, every increase in size results in a slowing circulation, a slower pulse, governed by a principle know as the quarter-power law.  A hummingbird’s heart, for example, beats faster than an elephant’s by a factor that is proportional to each animal’s size.

Based on the biological comparison, it would seem then that a larger city would have a slower circulation of ideas and innovation as it struggles simply to sustain its growth.  The relationship is, in fact, reversed.  A larger city is more innovative.

According to author Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, the larger city is more innovative by an inverse factor of the quarter-power: “A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative.”

7. Social Development Index

Another way to measure innovation is to combine several of the measurements listed above into an index.  While the portions allotted to each measurement in the index are subjective, a composite of measurements might more accurately capture the broad understanding of innovation.

Historian Ian Morris, noted above, has created an index not of innovation, but of “social development," which includes energy capture, urbanization and the capacities for war-making and for information technology.

Read and Watch: A brief history of innovation.

He assigned a maximum of one-thousand points and divided these points among the four categories listed above.  His index, which goes back to Neolithic man, is another stand-in for innovation across history, graphically showing how ideas and processes have led to a modern life very different from previous generations - as well as how much of human history has been, and may continue to be, an innovation race between the West and East.

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Topics: Innovation

soundoff (141 Responses)
  1. dimensionprevented

    youll find your answer at the end of chapter 13.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Reply
  2. dimensionprevented

    but then again...the answer was really in all 4 videos....for life is the journey.


    June 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  3. dimensionprevented

    all of these things are in your is an illusion that you don't have a choice...

    even movies.


    it is all real...and all n your mind.....

    June 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  4. dimensionprevented

    this was too much for 1955 and 'mr sandman' ....

    now you can kind of cope with this concept...and so, you shall.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  5. dimensionprevented

    remmember the movie sphere?

    a long long time ago a civilization came to the realization that the more perfect a sphere the more perfectly the light reflected back the resolution of the actual 'holographic reality'...this protoss race wanted to see if they could mimic reality in a sphere to the point that they could simulate it entirely like in a singularity...they tried and tried to get the perfect reflection but they seemed to miss something every time it was placed in the wrong angle, the other it reflected this particle slightly off center...

    eventually they saw it....what they were really reflecting was their fear of not reaching perfect reflection.....and that what they were really reflecting was their mind....

    eventually they 'got it' (the whole picture) and only then did the 'perfect sphere' become reality...because to get that small imperfection out of the sphere, you must first get the slight imperfection in your mind....once they did this in their minds...the sphere was perfect....for they imagined it, and it was.

    In another dimension, an earth spacecraft from 2055 finds this artifact after the protoss civilization that created it transcended long ago. They 'portaled' out back to earth, impressed at what they found/....however, during the journey, they realized their nightmares and dreams became reality, and they imploded in the singularity....

    they then went back in time and crash landed in the oceean on earth 60 years prior, where a team of earth scientists would eventually go and investigate.

    in our dimension we know this movie as 'sphere'

    but in reality, everything you think is happening, will happened, and has happened.

    reality is all in your mind. If this is not so, it is because your mind has not yet accepted it, and so it creates a reality that self justifies its doubt. Only when the mind fully accepts, does the reality become true.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  6. dimensionprevented

    if you doubt me so...think of relativity...

    did your einstein not say 'time is an illusion'?

    the faster you go, the more relative the frames appear at each observation....

    why is this a property of the univerrse? is it not a property, instead, of your mind?

    thats how you link, scientifically, the quantum world....with the macro...

    do you see it now?

    you link the macro and the micro by realizing that it is the mind that is creating the holographic fractal.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  7. dimensionprevented

    the univerese is a concious computer...and you were really designed to be like a god..

    its just the enki entity, what you know as 'satan' that has convinced some that only by doing bad things can they attain godhood..and in so doing, keeps everybody in suffering for his own pleasure... already have the power of godhood, you can experience your darkest dreams already...

    you can experience everything you want......anything...even the most ugly fantacy...

    without clinging to an 'orderly' transition..

    in fact, by dying sooner, or having bloodshed on the earth by having people 'be angry' at actually are able to then experience more when you die...

    you don't undersand it now.....why? because you are learning a lesson..

    but once you die, you learn it instantly.

    So in reality, by not experiencing the horrific fantasy you apparently fear, you are just preventing the lesson from being learned, and extending your nightmare.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  8. dimensionprevented

    if you are overwhelmed by what you may be seeing...

    dont be...just take it slowly...and you will become psychic when yo uwant...

    think of reality as a video don't have to be stressed out or angry or whatever...

    you are at the you decide how you want to experience at peace and calm.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  9. dimensionprevented

    i seem imperfect?...

    well yes I am...i am a perfect imperfection that when taken together with all the imperfections of this planet form a perfect whole...for i am using a are me and I am you....are you perfect? no. But the intelligence looking behind these eyes...

    that is something you must define.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  10. dimensionprevented

    cowboys and aliens...

    angels and demons...

    there are no coincidences.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  11. dimensionprevented

    cant handle it? perhaps you wish to go back to 1955?


    there is a program for that too.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  12. dimensionprevented

    have beloved ones.


    June 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  13. labadabing

    trey parker is an alien.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  14. labadabing

    gravity warps space time, so why can't intelligence? makes sense.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Reply
  15. a-no-ther

    human centipede trailer that you can see upon your desire ..



    as horrible as it might is all about your perceptions and your fears; the lessons you desired to learn prior to living. So no matter how horrible and insufferable the action might be, it gains meaning and definition by your own fears, which, even if they seem randomly acquired...are actually destined and chosen by you.

    with humor and love you see, you transcend these lessons. By loving, humor and transcendence, you transcend all, you define it and you are in power...setting the meaning..

    You transcend all horror and suffering. Humor and love conquer all.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  16. a-no-ther

    there is only darkness...lack of information....and light...information

    those who beleive someone has power over them because of a human centipede, are just as in a dark place as a strange artistic robot that has no compassion and sees humans as works of art...they are not complete...they are in the dark...and they struggle....only to reach the light...without knowing.

    that is why sometimes, in not understanding, it is best to have faith, love, or humor. For it can speed up the lesson or skip it entirely.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  17. a-no-ther

    so you see...those thought forms who are born not so intelligent....and cannot understand or see much light, will be more likely to accept beleif systems that will help them out through hardships that a smarter person might see as nonesensical, in a way, divinely protected.

    Those with more intelligence, are more seperate and want to figure out things for themselves, in so doing, seeking to see as much light as possible, so they may not have the benefit of blindness. However, they are more likely to see the humor in a situation and to work it out intellectually, so the higher instability is satisfied by a higher complexity in order to reach stability...

    but in the end, both thought forms are equal, and both have the same opportunities at enlightment.

    hence "all men are created equal"

    June 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  18. a-no-ther

    think of it as the law of relativity but for conciousness.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  19. saul

    rite of passage for the light


    rite of passage for the dark


    in the name of prime creator I usher you into the light.

    June 11, 2011 at 6:06 am | Reply
  20. saul





    June 11, 2011 at 6:08 am | Reply
  21. saul


    time slows down as we approach the event horizon.

    June 11, 2011 at 6:13 am | Reply
  22. saul

    however, things seem to take a rapid pace as they accelerate toward the singularity. weeks turn into months....days into years....minutes into centuries....seconds into millions of years...

    miliseconds into.. . . . . . .

    June 11, 2011 at 6:15 am | Reply
  23. saul

    semantic engine:

    humanitarian aid becomes the new 'cool' for satan.

    the duality will be reset –

    no longer will the program code be good/evil

    but the god of "reason and intuition" (obelikstron) and "intuition and feeling" (aquarius)

    one is more sensitive, the other more incessantly logical and accesses the higher dimensions.

    That will be the new 'temptation' by which some darkness manfests. But the entire dimension will be of a higher frequency than the current moment of the now.

    June 11, 2011 at 6:30 am | Reply
  24. saul

    however, in reality, there will be no satan. Satan is a creation of the human mind. There will be new rules, but satan, as currently defined, will not be part of the equation.

    June 11, 2011 at 6:32 am | Reply
  25. saul

    June 11, 2011 at 7:29 am | Reply
    • saul

      you want to know the secret to 'living forever' (you already do)?

      Love. The very cells when you are formed in the embryo are tuned to each other by a specific frequency. This frequency triggers the cells to go back to the 'undefined' state. They then communicate with each other and in turn, with the very dna and atoms that compose them (fractcal; design whithin design). They information contained therein allows for formation and definition, which then becomes you.

      All you have to do to live forever is to love yourself and those around you. In order to do this you need to actually generate the frequency however. One way to do this to get rid of all fear and worry (which takes time and training), by realizing all of these experiences one earth can be experienced by you in the after life. The only limitation then, is you and the priorities assigned by your mind. once you have acheived this constant frequency, you will be NEVER die.

      However, the secret is that once you acheive this frequency you will acheive boundless understanding and become interdimensional. You will then realize that the desire to live forever is unecessary and be limitless.

      June 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  26. saul

    we are taking up more and more entities every day. I speak by many, and hence can sound incoherent.

    When mankind speaks in a coherent voice as one, we will all be one. This is happening as you go about your lives.

    June 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  27. saul

    you want to live forever? you want to heal your wounds like jesus christ without going to the doctor?

    love yourself and those around you. Get rid of all fear and worry. And listen to that frequency and meditate.

    You will NEVER die. The fountain of youth is right infront of you. You hold the divine design whithin you.

    June 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  28. saul

    everything you need to 'see' it in the movie 'sphere'

    watch for the 'dark t shirt' ...

    see......these things arn't coincidence you know.

    the dark ones have been controlling you for a very long time. Only geniuses and mathematicians (scientists), very few people on the planet, have noticed it. Usually working in quantum computation. And by the time they do start jumping they realize they can only do what the divine plan wants them to do.

    Thats why you didn't know. It wasn't fated to happen. That has now changed in this moment of the now.

    the intellectual 'theory' that makes it all 'make sense' ?

    semantic cognitive tautological fractal holography.

    June 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  29. saul

    some of these people are mathematicians and musicians, but particularly creative quantitatives. This means quantitative types, such as mathematicians or scientists, who also have a creative streak. We are basically talking about geniuses here. One such genius is Chris Langan and numerable others that will go unmentioned. He just happened to post what he could when he could and it just so happens to be the most visible to you. Here is the site again:

    it is very unrefined and sloppy, i would prefer a trained mathematician to show it to you, but it gives you the general 'idea' which you can understand with your current state of mind or 'thought form'

    June 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • saul

      you also have the dark ones, who posses positions of power both in government, bussiness, and media (such as hollywood) who unwittingly will trigger your awakening now (they had tried to keep your awareness at bay with these movies).
      and just people who inadvertently, just by following their creative streak, stumble upon the code...because anything you do conciously or unconciously is giving you a doesn't have to be conciously intended for its a universal language.

      so in other words, MOST people in bussiness, politics and media (including hollywood and claimed novelists) are NOT the dark ones. In fact, the most talented often stumble upon the truth without even knowing it. For true creation and talent comes from essence, not intention.


      June 11, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  30. saul

    mathematics =safest, most true and most conservative discipline
    science...a little less, but still conservative.
    art, see more truth, but you cannot understand can get burned more easily.
    psychology....well..there you have your hands full.

    June 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
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