Mission Economic system — how house journey might assist repair the planet
Since 1969, people have wondered why people who can land on the moon cannot solve urgent problems like poverty, dementia and climate change here on earth. Mariana Mazzucato offers an answer: If only governments applied the mission-driven methods of the Apollo project, they could.
Mission Economy, the new book from the high-profile economist known for her advocacy of a more active state, includes many screenshots of the whiteboards loved by brainstorming meetings, each with an ambitious goal at the top: securing the future of mobility, clean Oceans, defeat cancer; Below is a jumble of boxes and circles connected by multi-directional arrows. We need a “solution-based economy” driven and coordinated by more powerful governments operating at every stage of the innovation process.
But Apollo was a success because the goal was specific and limited; The basic research was well understood, although many minor technological developments were required to make the mission feasible. and the political commitment to the project was strong enough to make budget overruns almost irrelevant. Centrally directed missions have sometimes been successful when these conditions are met. Apollo was a response to the groundbreaking human launch into space by the Soviet Union, and the USSR’s greatest achievement was the mobilization of resources to defeat Nazi Germany.
Nixon’s war on cancer, which was explicitly modeled after the Apollo program, was a failure because cancer is not a single disease and too little was understood then or now about the science of cell mutation. Mao’s great leap forward, a futile attempt to create an industrial society within five years, turned out to be one of the greatest economic and humanitarian disasters in human history. At least 30 million people died.
It turned out that the “new frontier” of the late 1960s was IT, not space – marked by the striking lack of a centralized vision and direction
Democratic societies have more checks and balances to protect them from visionary leaders who are mission-driven and enthusiastic about moon shots, but the features that made the big leap forward into a disaster are still evident in the toned-down version .
With the political direction of innovation we regularly encounter the grandiosity of ambition and size; the belief that the strength of engagement overcomes practical problems; a lack of honest feedback; the suppression of skeptical comments and the marginalization of skeptical commentators.
All of this was evident in the UK’s experience of Concorde, the Channel Tunnel and the AGR nuclear reactor program, some of the worst commercial projects in history. More recently, £ 12 billion has been wasted on the NHS computerization program – a project Mazzucato mentions, although only private contractors have been blamed for failing to comply with the political imperative.
On a smaller scale, the UK has suffered over the past year from the delays resulting from Public Health England’s insistence on centralized control of the coronavirus testing program and the foreseeable fiasco of trying to override the expertise of Apple and Google to implement Develop a unique advanced NHS Test and Trace App. And in September there was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Operation Moonshot,” which aims to control the coronavirus by testing 10 million people a day in early 2021.
In contrast to these mistakes, the rapid development of vaccines is, at least for the time being, a success story. This development is not the product of a visionary central alignment, but the result of a competitive process in which many different teams around the world try to be among the first to cross the finish line.
Their work relied on a combination of existing academic science with the expertise in development and testing as well as the manufacturing and logistics capabilities of the global pharmaceutical industry. The government’s role, appropriately, has mainly been to fund basic research and ensure that there is a worthwhile market for successful products.
The decentralized process in which developers fall back on and support collective intelligence leads to constant, incremental improvement in so many areas
Mazzucato lists “twenty things we would not have without space travel”. Sports shoes, CAT scanners, house insulation, baby food, artificial limbs. Really. Beyond the ridiculous headline, we see the reality of productive innovation: a decentralized process where developers draw on and create the collective intelligence that leads to constant incremental improvement in so many areas – including better running shoes.
When technical historians review the past 50 years, they can conclude that Neil Armstrong exaggerated when he announced “a great leap for mankind”. The “new frontier” of the late 1960s was not space, but information technology. The evolution of IT has been marked by a noticeable lack of centralized vision and direction.
No moon shots; but piecemeal innovation through disciplined pluralism that almost always drove out passing winners because they did not anticipate the next step in the journey. Do you remember digital devices, Word Perfect, Wang Laboratories, CompuServe, Netscape, AOL, BlackBerry, Nokia? Every once a leader, now forgotten. Even Apple suffered more than one near-death experience, Microsoft couldn’t foresee mobile computing or the cloud, IBM was swept out of the industry it had created.
Mazzucato rightly highlighted the contribution of government-funded basic research to Silicon Valley, but thankfully it was more in the hands of Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick and Elon Musk than any committee of the Commerce Department.
Nobody has or could have the knowledge of the present or the future necessary to successfully develop or implement the strategies recommended by Mazzucato. Take your modern example – the energy transition in Germany or the energy transition towards renewable energies. You will not learn from Mission Economy that this highly political, widely publicized and extremely expensive project has resulted in significantly less CO2 emissions than Britain’s silent, economically and socially beneficial substitution of coal for gas.
The failure of the energy transition highlights the dangers of moon shots and the mission economy. As there is increasing talk of a “Green New Deal” on both sides of the Atlantic, the prospect of bigger, more expensive and less effective visionary projects is growing.
Politicians easily fall in love with such proposals, and Mazzucato is not afraid to remind us of how hard they try to discuss them with her. But the vision that drove China’s economic development was not Mao’s great leap forward or the Cultural Revolution, but Deng’s “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white when it catches mice.” It is more rewarding and effective to build better mousetraps than to shoot for a world without mice.
Mission economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, by Mariana Mazzucato, Allen Lane, RRP £ 20, 272 pages
John Kay is an economist, author, and fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford
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