Revolution and the Innovation wheel

In a brilliant journey through the economic history of the western world, author Robert J. Gordon looks at The Rise and Fall of American Growth. This recent book focuses on a revolutionary century that impacted the American standard of living more than any period before or after. Our standard of living is typically viewed as the ratio of total production of goods and services (real GDP) per member of the population. But this measure fails to truly capture enhancements to our well-being. Human well-being is influenced by advances in the areas of food, clothing, shelter, energy, transport, education, health, work, information, entertainment, and communications. The special century (1870 – 1970) that followed the Civil War was made possible by a unique clustering of what the author calls the great inventions. Clearly – as the visual I developed depicts – the great inventions of the second industrial revolution significantly improved our well-being:

Second Revolution Innovation Wheel

The author concludes that the 1870-1970 century was unique in that many of the great inventions could only happen once. Mr. Gordon states that by 1970 the basic elements of our modern standard of living were already achieved along the dimensions identified in the visual. His forecast for the next 25 years sees limited growth, as several headwinds reduce growth in median real disposable income. In making a compelling argument, Mr. Gordon dismisses the views of the many techno-optimists that see a return to productivity and enhanced well-being, as automation drives labor productivity and scarcity gives way to abundance.

I have viewed this debate through the lens of future scenarios, their likely path, and their potential to enhance our well-being (or diminish it as explored in this post on balance). To explore this topic further, I overlaid these scenarios and their various innovation components on top of my visual inspired by Mr. Gordon’s work. This framework allows us to explore these scenarios and their potential to improve (or diminish) our well-being across the dimensions described earlier. Can we replicate or exceed the great inventions of the special century? Can we effectively manage the headwinds described by the books author?

Fourth Revolution Innovation Wheel

I will explore these questions in future posts. In the meantime, please help me crowd source the expansion of the visual above. What are the future scenarios, innovation components, or science and technology advancements that have the potential to enhance our well-being across these dimensions: food, clothing, shelter, energy, transport, education, health, work, information, entertainment, and communications? For more thoughts on this topic, take a journey to the future and help to Reimagine it.

37 thoughts on “Revolution and the Innovation wheel

  1. Love the spirit behind this diagram, good work! There are many next gen technologies, like AR, Ai, Autonomous Transport etc that will have influence far beyond single categories so I’m wondering if there’s a graphical way to depict these cross-category shifts to illustrate their far-reaching influence. This would help remove the duplication in the outer ring, but also illustrate how some future changes are so profound they will tear up conventional thinking and categorisations. Great start, let me know how this thing evolves 🙂


  2. […] In 2017, we will see a growing shift towards purpose, exploiting our advances in science and technology to improve the human condition. Whether it is achieving standard of living parity in developing economies, or advances in the current standard of living of developed nations, this shift in focus will gain more traction in the coming year, penetrating the mission statements of many more companies. I explore this prediction in detail in a recent post titled Revolution and the Innovation Wheel. […]


  3. […] Purpose: in my piece on 2017 predictions, I referenced a shift in focus to human well-being and purpose.  Taken together, these shifts emphasize our own life experiences – whether it’s the simple task of hailing a cab or the complicated task of improving medical outcomes. Innovators will remove friction from one experience after another, initially via platforms and ultimately through a finite set of ecosystems. This shift towards well-being and happiness will gain traction, penetrating the mission statements of many more companies. The eventual impact on our standard of living was explored in a recent post titled Revolution and the Innovation Wheel. […]


  4. […] Yogi Berra is credited for once saying that the future ain’t what it used to be. What a perfect way to describe what is coming: a complete change in the way we think about the future. Our journey to the future begins with a look back. A convergence of multiple forces during a special century following the U.S. Civil War established the standard of living in developed economies. Some believe that we will never see a convergence of forces as dramatic and impactful as that which occurred during this period. I pulled this wheel together to capture that convergence across the various areas of our well-being, leveraging the work of economist Robert J. Gordon. I captured his thinking in a recent post titled Revolution and the Innovation Wheel. […]


  5. […] The authors state that the lion’s share of human development comes from the technologies and systems developed during the second Industrial Revolution – such as electricity, water and sanitation, modern healthcare and the huge expansion in agricultural productivity driven by the invention of artificial fertilizer. This is an argument that Robert Gordon has made persuasively, and something that I covered in an earlier Post. […]


  6. Every time I’m presented with the Pessimist views I’m reminded of the now infamous quote: “Everything that can be invented has been invented”; falsly attributed to Charles Holland Duell:

    The reality (pessimist or optimist view) is actually very complex, as is usually the case when trying predict the future. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t predict how technology will shape things because we don’t know yet what technologies will be invented.

    The one thing we can be sure of is that there will be radical and accelerating change in the near future as technologies reshape the space of possibilities and nudge (or rather shove) our culture in directions we could not have guessed ten years ago.

    Personally, I have been guilty of both pessimistic and optimistic views. I’m an optimist in that I think technology has the potential to revolutionize life and usher in a kind of Star Trek future. The 64 million dollar question, and the part that leads me into pessimism, is the word potential. Just because something has potential does not mean we as a civilization possess the collective wisdom to realize that potential. This pessimism is strengthened as we Americans plung head first toward totalitarian fascism and an anti-science hard right wing culture. Will the rationalists prevail? I hope so.

    Liked by 1 person

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