Apr 122011
Painting of James Watt, the noted inventor by ...

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To find the next great ideas, follow the tractors, tourists, and drinkers.

Predicting innovation is something of a self-canceling exercise: the most probable innovations are probably the least innovative.

The history of humankind’s development can be summed up as the story of surprise. Adam Smith failed to forecast the Industrial Revolution despite his friendship with James Watt, inventor of the steam engine that powered it. And who would have prophesied MySpace, Oprah, or a TSA ban on hair-styling gel in quantities greater than three ounces?

But even if we can’t see what innovations are around the corner, maybe we can at least predict what places are likely to be the most innovative in the future. And an innovative tool called Worldmapper might help.

Worldmapper was created by geographers from the University of Sheffield’s Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group (There’s an innovative college major!) and by Mark Newman, a physicist at the University of Michigan. It allows them to turn all sorts of obscure statistical information into vivid pictures. Countries look skinny or fat according to their share of wealth or trade or population, but retain their familiar national boundary shapes. The results are often cartoonish, but nonetheless scientifically precise. Perhaps a decidedly unscientific tour through a few of Worldmapper’s more than 200 maps will help us see which countries are best endowed with the stuff of future innovation—and whether the United States has a fat or a skinny future.

No place can be innovative without children. This is not because of the platitudinous link between youth and creativity; the children’s art on my refrigerator suggests there isn’t any. Ben Franklin was no kid when he invented bifocals. Henry Ford, by all accounts, seems never to have been youthful. But countries with children, demographers predict, will have adults. India, China, and the nations of Africa and South Asia are in the lead, as the Total Children map shows. Note, however, that there are adequate numbers of children elsewhere, even in supposedly child-proof Europe and Japan, and plenty in the United States. And not every child will grow up to be an innovative adult.

Each child is biologically required to have a mother. Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact. What kind of woman is best at lovingly fostering the potential in children? Let us sidestep sociological, economic, and feminist arguments and posit simply a woman who is herself beloved. Quantification of that is difficult, and Worldmapper hasn’t tried. But two of its maps, one almost the exact inverse of the other, are nonetheless telling: Women in Agriculture (the number of female farm laborers) and Tractors Working. It’s good when a society values women, not so good when it values women because they are cheaper than a John Deere.

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