Some economists see faltering growth in advanced economies as part of a longer-term trend, where the bulk of technological innovation is now behind humankind. But Dr Chris Kutarna, Oxford Martin School Fellow and co-author of The Age of Discovery, argues that neither history nor the present-day pace of scientific discovery supports this notion of diminishing returns.
Growth economics has its limits, he says, and is unable to capture the dynamism of our new age of discovery for a reason – because much that matters is still beyond its sight.
“The question I’m asking now is should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future,” Dr Kutarna says in this podcast from a recent seminar at UTS Business School. “People are starting to line up on both sides of this question [and] it seems that there are good arguments [for either side] depending on your lens.”
'And yet we can step into other domains
and be in a completely different world'
If we take a modern economic lens, for example, we can establish a pessimistic argument, he says. The data is there, with statistics showing the rate of economic growth slowing, suggesting we are unlikely to reproduce the sort of growth we saw in the 20th century.
“And yet we can step into other domains and be in a completely different world. I talk to scientists all the time who say we are at the beginning of a steep curve because it’s only now, with our modern computing tools, that we can really begin to go after the hard questions in science.”
As science goes down that pathway the challenge will be for economists to accurately measure progress that may not be immediately apparent – just as the advent of the printing press was an epochal moment that would not have registered.
“If you look at that ... time period through a modern growth economist’s lens … nothing happened,” he says. A reconstruction of global economic growth for the past 1000 years shows that “this same moment that historians today consider the break between the medieval and the early modern world basically had no representation in GDP growth.”
Kurtarna concludes: “It’s going to challenge all of us as citizens and countries affected by [technological and scientific change] to participate in those trajectories and ... to get involved in shaping the consequences – so that whether we measure it in economic terms or some other paradigms yet to be developed, we do manage to create a more prosperous future in the 21st century.”
Hear Dr Kutarna explain why he believes the “growth sceptics” are wrong: