Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The More the Merrier for Innovation?

I recently read an entry in the NY Times’ Economix blog by Casey Mulligan, University of Chicago economics professor, regarding the relationship between population and innovation. His article refutes a Unicef study that promotes the benefits of family planning and population control for environmental health (via reduced carbon emissions and resultant climate change). Mulligan counters that population growth increases the chance for innovative minds to come up with alternative energy solutions or to mitigate effects of carbon emissions.

In our dicussions regarding the right conditions for innovation, I haven’t thought about how the number of people on this planet affects innovation. At first, Mulligan’s position seemed easily defensible. Even if brilliant innovators will still be born regardless of population control, he says, their incentives to innovate would diminish. Incentives are important for innovation, he says, as evidenced by our patent system that protects (in theory) the innovator’s financial rewards. Indeed, we had an in-depth lecture on the complex US patent system and the incentive to innovate related to property rights (Gilbert 2006). In addition, Mulligan continues, market size stimulates innovation: pharmaceutical research is more intense for widespread conditions. We have supported the concept (e.g., our discussions about orphan drugs). Plus, it just makes common sense that the more people there are, the more chance there will be that innovative ideas will come to fruition. Right?

I think the network perspective article we read would support that –weak ties are a strong tool for innovation (Conway and Steward 2009) and the larger and more diverse the universe of connections, the more weak ties there will be among networks.

However, Anthony and Christensen might say that fringe markets (overshot and undershot customers) are most ripe for innovation. I’m not personally advocating population control, but looking into the relationship between markets and innovation from this population angle was interesting. If the universe of the markets shrinks, wouldn’t that change the dynamics of the “battle for existing customers in existing markets” (Anthony & Christensen 2005) so that more markets become fringe markets? I think a smaller market universe might force smarter, more specialized, more disruptive innovations.

Specific to this article, is population control a viable solution to environmental problems, or does population growth increases the chance of innovative environmental solutions?

More generally, would a smaller population make spotting trends in Anthony and Christensen’s methodology easier and therefore inspire more disruption? Would it reduce the size of the blue ocean competition and spark more red ocean ideas?


  1. The Sierra Club, America's oldest and largest environmental conservation and preservation organization, once considered taking a position against overpopulation and immigration in the 1980's, but the controversial stance was not taken and the Sierra Club chose to remain neutral and focus on it's core mission.

    I'm torn between Anne Candler's question about size of market increasing innovation possibilities or not. People create problems, and constant problems force constant innovation and change. In terms of the relationship between population and innovation, I think a natural homeostasis is inevitable. So I'm going to pick a side and say "bring on the people and bring on more innovations."

  2. I think it's an issue of extremes. Realistically, an over populated, under-educated, under-resourced general public is probably less likely (in terms of ratios) to innovate to as large a degree as a medium-sized population with a resource abundance.

    On the flip-side, I think extensive, "sustainable" population controls would also hamper innovation, because sustainability too often takes into account what is obvious and apparent, which as final arriving point is anti-thetical to the innovation process.

    All that being said, my aversion for most things utilitarian puts me in the same camp as Ben.

  3. Two things:

    First, yes, probably having more people on earth would create both more opportunities for innovation and more innovators to work on those opportunities. But isn't that like saying we should be less careful not to punch holes in oil tankers so that we can find new and better ways to clean up oil spills? Or that we should continue to perpetuate racism so that minority groups will have a cause to rally around? Is innovation just for the sake of innovation really a valid goal (I think in some cases yes- we don't want to start becoming less-innovative as a species), and if so, at what cost (I think we need to be very careful with this question)?

    Second, as Pierre mentioned, we have to consider the places where populations are growing. Population growth doesn't just happen equitably all over the world- it primarily occurs in lower income populations, many of whom are below the poverty line. And while it is by no means impossible for someone living on less than a dollar a day to be a great innovator, they certainly face more of the limiting factors to innovation that we discussed in class, especially if you factor in patent issues and other artificial barriers. Countries like China and India that have large populations and are growing economically would seem to be examples of places where population growth = innovation. But, China has already (for better or worse) taken steps to limit their population growth because they recognize the negative impacts of too many people, and I think their innovative capacity has more to do with their current stage of development than the number of people.

    While I'm not sure where I land on population control (and I for sure don't want to open a can of worms about reproductive rights), I do think that innovation and the issue of population control are both more complicated than just "more people, more possibilities for innovation" like the author suggests.

    Thanks for the post, Ann Candler- your analysis was great, and the topic was definitely thought-provoking. Can't wait to discuss it in class!

  4. Thanks for all of your comments. I had not thought about the fact that demographics of the most rapidly expanding populations has a serious impact on how population growth hampers or inspires innovation. It's really a tough question and I definitely agree is not as simple as "more people, more innovations." I still can't decide where to "camp".