Most economic growth has a very simple source: new ideas. It is our creativity that generates wealth. So how can we increase the pace of innovation? Is it possible to inspire more Picassos and Steve Jobses?
The answer to that question is hidden in history books. Several years ago, statistician David Banks wrote a short paper on what he called the problem of excess genius: It turns out that human geniuses aren’t scattered randomly across time and space. Instead, they tend to arrive in tight clusters. (As Banks put it, talent “clots inhomogeneously.”) In his paper, Banks cites the example of Athens between 440 and 380 BC. He writes that the ancient city was home to an astonishing number of geniuses, including Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. These thinkers essentially invented Western civilization, and yet they all lived in the same place at the same time. Or look at Florence, Italy, between 1440 and 1490. In a mere half century, a city of fewer than 70,000 people gave rise to a staggering number of immortal artists, like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Ghiberti, Botticelli, and Donatello.
What causes such outpourings of creativity? Banks quickly dismissed the usual historical explanations, such as the importance of peace and prosperity. (In Plato’s day, Athens was engaged in a vicious war with Sparta.) The academic paper ends on a somber note, with Banks concluding that the phenomenon of pockets of genius remains a mystery.
And yet it’s not a total mystery: We can begin to make sense of the “clotting” of creative talent. The secret, it turns out, is the presence of particular meta-ideas, which support the spread of other ideas. First proposed by economist Paul Romer, meta-ideas include concepts like the patent system, public libraries, and universal education. Furthermore, by looking at what various ages of excess genius had in common, it’s possible to come up with a creativity blueprint for the 21st century.
Related book: Imagine