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?