The writings of eminent economists describe our current situation as stagnant, idle and lacking in innovation; for example, Frederik Erixon and Björn Weigel’s The Innovation Illusion, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation.

This diagnosis becomes clearer when you take a look at our table, which shows a selection of high-impact innovations throughout history. Inventions from before the 19th century – or inventions of social organisation – have had the most lasting influence on our society: how would the world be structured today if we didn’t have writing, calendars or money?

The 19th and 20th centuries also produced plenty of technologies that have fundamentally altered our society, from the contraceptive pill to air conditioning and from aeroplanes to cars. Key communication technologies such as the telephone, radio and internet were invented, and mass production reached the high level that we see today. The modern age is the age of prosperity inventions.

Table: Change of Innovation
By comparison, the 21st century is the era of leisure inventions. Today, influential technologies such as smartphones, YouTube and Facebook don’t represent an increase in prosperity so much as they do represent stagnation and complacency. It’s clear that economists feel we’ve reached the limits of growth.

However, there are also future scenarios and technological possibilities that could enable a further increase in productivity. Innovation is being transformed. Inventions no longer increase prosperity and free time, as they have done over the past 200 years – they now seek to improve and upgrade humanity itself.

  • On a psychological level, it’s claimed that smart drugs and neurological enhancements will improve our neurological activities – our brains will become more efficient. And because today’s economic capital largely takes the form of ‘brain capital’, increases in neurological productivity and efficiency also lead to economic growth.
  • On a physiological level, gene therapies (targeted alterations to DNA) and future advances in self-healing research have the potential to keep the human body healthy so that we can remain active for much longer. This will reduce healthcare costs and enable a sharp rise in the retirement age – and more working years also mean an increase in societal productivity.

These possibilities demonstrate that it’s possible for stagnation to be followed by further growth. On 29 May 2017, the economist Tyler Cowen and the geostrategist Parag Khanna will discuss what we can learn from the current period of inertia at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.