The Roots of Progress

Interview: Charter Cities Institute podcast with Mark Lutter

I was interviewed by Mark Lutter for the Charter Cities Podcast. We talked about my latest understanding of the stagnation hypothesis, funding models for progress, and of course cities as innovation hubs.

Some excerpts from the transcript:

You put all those together, chemical engineering, oil, electricity and germ theory. Those four things together, again, each of them is pretty much equivalent to I would say, the computer and Internet revolution. Between the four of them, they really directly revolutionized every area of life in the economy. You don’t have to downplay computers in the Internet in order to see or discount the huge impact that computers in the Internet have had in order to see that yes, one revolution just doesn’t stack up to four of them all going on at the same time.

To me, the stagnation question has become, where are the other revolutions? Any one revolution is going to only last you so long. It’s going to go through an S-curve. It’s going to eventually level out and plateau as it saturates the market and you’ve done everything that you can do with it. Why did we let four of them all level off and why did we only replace them with one? By the way, what’s coming next? The only thing worse than going from four to one is going from one to zero, major revolutions happening at a time.

On safety culture, regulation, and the FDA:

The other thing you mentioned was regulation. I am very sympathetic to this and this is the practical implementation in many ways of the safety concern. If you just want a concrete example of this, look at the evolution of the FDA over the last 114 years or whatever that it’s been. In 1906, I believe it was the FDA is created in response to some very real concerns about some really horrible things that apparently were going on in meat packing and other just food and drug, obviously. Those things were being created to not very high purity standards were being adulterated and it was not anything that anybody really wanted.

More than a 100 years later, the FDA is blocking rapid COVID testing and is getting in the way of us actually fighting a pandemic. I think, something went wrong in those 114 years and we should really – I think somebody should tell that story and look into what was it? Where did it go wrong? How did it get to this point where it’s arguably adding more roadblocks than it’s actually doing good?

On technology risks:

I think in terms of existential risk, the biggest lesson is we just need to get better at correctly anticipating risks. We need to get better at predicting them. Then, we also probably need to get better at actually figuring out what to do and getting people to do it.

Sometimes even times when risks have been foreseen, they have not always been heated. Antibiotics for example, Alexander Fleming who discovered the action of the penicillin mold, he very early on saw the possibility of antibiotic resistance. Yet, antibiotics were still overused and overprescribed in the early days, just because they were seen as such a miracle drug. We need to get better at predicting risks and we need to get better at actually coming up with plans and putting those plans in place.

Listen above or read the transcript.

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