June 5th, 2011
08:35 AM ET

A brief history of innovation

Editor's Note: Steven Johnson is the author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

By Steven Johnson – Special to CNN

In the video above you see a chart of global GDP over the last 1,000 years, which is basically the best way to measure the increasing value from new products and services created in a society.

If we start the clock at the year 1000, in the middle of the Dark Ages, then look at what happens over the next 500 years - global GDP just flat lines. There's no change at all.

Then the trading capitals of Europe start to light up and you begin to see this slow but steady growth for the next 300 years.

Tune In: Sunday 8pm ET/PT as Fareed Zakaria explores why innovation is the key to America's future on CNN.

Then stop the clock. It's 1800, the dawn of the Industrial Age. Steam power is starting to revolutionize life in Britain, the United States and Europe.

Then in the video above you can see what happens over the next 200 years. You see this dramatic spike - a global spike - in GDP everywhere around the planet. This is an extraordinary change. Something this dramatic has never happened before over the course of human history.

Now, why is it happening? It's being driven by new ideas and new innovations that put those ideas to practical use. And more often than not, it's new innovations that help us in capturing and sharing energy and information in new ways.

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

Perhaps the most interesting data over the last couple of hundred years, is in 1800 2 percent of human beings lived in cities.  And now it's 50 percent.  And when people gather together, there is just this extraordinary process where marketplaces form, ideas flow more easily and people collaborate in new ways.  And so cities have historically been great drivers of innovation.  And I think as the planet becomes more and more urban, we're going to see that process continuing.

Read: Fareed Zakaria's TIME article, The Future of Innovation: Can America Keep Pace?

For more from Steven Johnson, tune in at 8pm tonight for a CNN GPS special, "Restoring the American Dream: How to Innovate." Also, follow Fareed Zakaria on twitter (@FareedZakaria) where he'll be live tweeting the special along with Steven Johnson.

Finally, bookmark this page, the "Global Innovation Showcase" for more from the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square on innovation.

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Topics: Ideas • Innovation

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, nothing really exciting happened in the world of western civiliation until the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Adam Smith's gain-maximising strategy drove manufacturers to use machines as a means to increase and speed the production process. Most important the world saw the importance of technique and the teaching of sciences in schools.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  2. Peter Jesella

    •Silence is no answer
    EDITOR: As a veteran studying behavioral science in 1978, I learned of the theory of global warming at San Jose State University. In 1979, I learned of Rep. Pete McCloskey’s bill to create a volunteer national youth service to replace the Selective Service System.
    My 1973 experience of the Yom Kipper War, the oil embargo, gasoline lines and reports in local newspapers of angry Americans made me realize the possibility of a war over our oil needs. My partial solution was restoring the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps with a focus on energy efficiency.
    It seemed clear to me that the “shock and awe” of McCloskey’s bill becoming law would challenge the persistence of denial and provide a framework for “action-oriented” results. Every year, both males and females would debate the merits between ages 17 and 18 of contracted community or military service. My discovery was indifference to compromise was something both liberals and conservatives can agree on.
    Since 9/11, many, including The Press Democrat and the Climate Protection Campaign, have heard this proposal but remain indifferent.
    Press Democrat newspaper, Santa Rosa CA
    • Thursday's Letters to the Editor
    Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. on Website
    Press Democrat newspaper, Santa Rosa CA, June 2, 2011 printed and edited my Letter to Editor, okay edit, but left out remarks about Congressman Mike Thompson, sharing photo encounters, but no written comments for 8 years, for me all very strange experiences of our social reality.

    June 5, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  3. Oliver Hilsenrath

    Steven, your chart was boring, unimaginative and...incorrect. You frankly looked like a dweeb. Rather than the obvious which every 5th grader knows about world growth, you should have pointed out the curious and extraordinary dent in human GDP in the dark ages, where the world economy took a 1000 years downturn. You should have pointed out, especially today, that we should worry about a negative dent that could take centuries to overcome - that would have caught my attention.

    June 5, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • HopeForHumanity

      You Negativist!

      June 6, 2011 at 12:16 am |
  4. Richard Flood

    How can you measure innovation in terms of GDP?? The increase in the money supply and inflation has caused prices to skyrocket in the past 100 years by nearly 100x. Innovation hasn't increased just because we are counting money in terms of millions of dollars, values that were unimaginable in the dark ages. The price of an average automobile in 1940, compared to the average cost of an automobile today is like comparing apples to oranges. How much was a horse and cart back in those days? Certainly not $45,000. The cost of a Coca-Cola in the 1920s (a nickel, the deposit for the bottle, which upon redemption, one could receive their nickel back, making the product free) compared to 2011 ($1.25) when we throw the bottle away, is a ridiculous comparison to make. It's still the same Coca-Cola (minus the cocaine). I'm no economist, but I think that's a 12,500% increase in less than 100 years. Maybe THAT's the reason for the spike. Simply put, GDP cannot change the fact that global exploration and all the innovation that followed was lead by the invention of the wheel, ink and paper, discovery of penicillin, oh yes.. let's not forget the guy who proclaimed the world was indeed NOT flat, and the one who set sail to prove it, the telescope, proving we live in a heliocentric universe, the internal combustion engine, the refrigerator, the automobile, the light bulb, the airplane.. inventions that may not have made their inventors multi-BILLIONAIRES like Bill Gates, but innovations, nonetheless, that changed the course of human history. Recent inventors have figured out the game of filing patents (and lawsuits) to maximize personal gains from their inventions, but some of the most impactful innovations in the world aren't considered relevant because they aren't reflected in "global GDP"?? You've got to be kidding me. THIS is what they're teaching you in those economics classes? When was the term GDP even invented (1934?). Now THAT was an innovation. Try this again, except use common sense this time.

    June 6, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  5. desmond murray

    Take a look at http://www.bestearly.com for an educational approach that should be part of America's innovation strategy ..... universal adoption of early research participation. Give us your feedback.

    June 6, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  6. Alfred Ortiz

    Are you sure innovation is the driver for increased GDP in your timeline? I think the driver was political change increasing freedom and stronger political power for the public. Around the 1700’s the benefits of the European reissuance and American conquest and growth were likely increasing GDP. The world was moving away from plutocracies run by monarchs. Afterwards that political freedom gradually spread throughout the world. This observation matches your timeline. Today America is moving back towards a plutocracy, and GDP shows it. New American innovations don’t help GDP if common people are restricted from applying them, or lacks necessary funding. I encourage bringing manufacturing back to the USA anyway we can.

    June 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  7. guest


    We Killin It – Barton Block

    "Like" us on facebook

    @ http://www.facebook.com/barotnblock

    June 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Prince

      As much a I could globally adelonkcge, there is always a reason for which you would like to outsource some specific IT operation to find the right resources. I run an outsoucing platform in Ukraine and Russia for one reason: the is the only place in the world you can find such people: High intellectual capacity beyond any understanding and a strong commitment to deliver the right value in the shortest timeline. Whatsoever I would achieve in France in 3 months, I achieve better there in 2 months. And this is a big difference. When I see Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Oracle running around the spot in Kiev, I do believe that this is not for vacationing.

      March 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
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    December 29, 2020 at 3:51 pm |

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