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Reigniting Progress By Studying It with Jason Crawford
Episode 145th October 2020 • Charter Cities Podcast • Kurtis Lockhart
00:00:00 01:01:49

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What is progress, has it slowed down, and what can we do about it? Joining us today to talk about the emerging field of progress studies and how it might help us dig into questions like these, is Jason Crawford, author of the blog, Roots Of Progress. Jason opens by providing us with a definition of progress and why the active study of it might help us rekindle it in our world. We talk about how progress has increasingly dwindled next. In the late 19th and early 20th century, four major progress revolutions were occurring in fields of chemical engineering, oil, electricity, and germ theory, and today we only have one, tech. In thinking about why this has occurred, we examine the stagnation hypothesis which argues that as a culture we have come to prize innovation less, we have chosen the low-hanging fruit of previous innovations to explore rather than find new ones, and regulations have grown to the extent that breakthroughs have been throttled. Jason gives his thoughts on these arguments, and also adds a fourth reason which centers around a change in funding structures for innovation. The next part of our conversation is about how we might bring back a culture of inventiveness, past examples of cities that were hubs of invention, and what the ingredients for great innovation are. Along with this, Jason shares his thoughts on what the next big movement could be before we wrap up with a discussion on the risks inherent in progress and what an effective movement for social change might look like.

Key Points From This Episode:

•   Introducing Jason and the definition of progress, as well as the new field of progress studies.

•   Examples of progress that occurred without progress studies – why do we need this field?

•   Arguments for and against the ‘stagnation hypothesis’ as a theory of slowed progress.

•   Four revolutions in the late1800s to early 1900s comparable to our tech revolution: chemical engineering, oil, electricity, and germ theory.

•   The stagnation hypothesis reframed as a consideration of what happened to the four revolutions.

•   Critically unpacking the ‘culture’, ‘low-hanging fruit’, and ‘regulation’ arguments for slowing progress.

•   Another reason why progress might have petered out that centers around funding structures.

•   The heyday of corporate research versus today’s progress model: Universities and ‘tech transfer’.

•   The difficulty of implementing high-level ideas that are possible and the role this might play.

•   Separating science from the corporate world and the need to merge both for more progress.

•   How we could bring back more of a culture of breakthroughs; new career paths and looking to the late 19th century.

•   Examples of do-it-yourself invention culture from today: prosthetics, automatic pancreases.

•   Why some cities are hubs of invention and what the ingredients for this creativity are.

•   Jason’s thoughts about why the next major revolution might be in biotech.

•   Online chat spaces that allow for serendipity; inventiveness might no longer be geographically bound.

•   Balancing the existential risk aspect of world-ending technology with the idea of progress.

•   Technologies producing unforeseen dangers and how we are handling risk assessment.

•   How social movements can collapse and whether an effective model for social change exists.

•   Moving past arguments about regulation to an attitude of ‘what can actually be done.’

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Mark Lutter

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Jason Crawford

Jason Crawford on Twitter

Roots of Progress

Patrick Collison

Tyler Cowen

‘We Need A New Science of Progress’

Francis Bacon

Peter Thiel

The Rise and Fall of American Growth


Elon Musk

Where's My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past

Ben Reinhardt on Twitter

Michael Nielsen on Twitter

The Great Bridge

Simons Foundation


Bell Labs

Scott Alexander

‘The Atomic Bomb Considered As Hungarian High School Science Fair Project’

Alexander Fleming

Tony Blair Institute For Global Change

The Tanner Greer Blog (Scholar’s Stage)