“The Atlas of Economic Complexity,” by Riccardo Haussman, Cesar Hidalgo, et al. Harvard University and Massachisetts Institute of Technology.
Leonardo da Vinci once told an aspiring artist to seek inspiration in staring at old, deeply cracked stucco walls until a pattern presented itself. The creative power in applying massive computing power to reveal patterns of meaning from seemingly incoherent masses of data is perhaps a modern analogue. Decoding the mysteries of the genome is one important application of this technique. Another less glamorous, but promising, one is found in The Atlas of Economic Complexity: Mapping Paths to Prosperity. This work uses stupendous amounts of data to map the thousands of supply chains in every country of the globe to reveal the structures of the modern economy. Its ambition is to describe the successful workings of the modern economy in the interest of charting paths to economic development. It has at least two convincing insights: that more complex economies are more prosperous, and that the more advanced the manufacturing sector, the more successful (in terms of growth at least) the economy. Both historical and contemporary data from advanced and developing countries are adduced to support these and other insights. Policy makers and economic analysts can use the rich data collections and the mapping of economic flows in the interests of achieving desired results for national economies. The graphics are elegant and artistic, and the ability to derive useful prescriptions from the empirical reality is unusually deep. This work may not be as visually and aesthetically rewarding as “Cloud Atlas,” but its profound insight into the real world is in its own way a work of art.
Tom Duesterberg is executive director of the Manufacturing & Society in 21st Century Program. Learn more about Tom and his work at www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/manufacturing. You can read other entires in this series here.