How does progress happen?
8 min read
fairly easy
The discipline of "progress studies" wants to figure out what drives discoveries and inventions so we can supercharge human flourishing.
What makes inventions and discoveries happen? Are they mostly the work of lone geniuses? The product of highly productive universities and research centers? Is funding, public and private, the best way to jumpstart innovation, or will it happen at its own idiosyncratic pace no matter how much money you throw at R&D?

These are very difficult questions to answer. But there's a budding new area of research — its practitioners are calling it "progress studies" — dedicated to answering them, or at least to push them toward the forefront of our thinking.

The progress studies movement is very small — mostly a handful of bloggers and researchers — but it's one of the more intriguing intellectual movements out there. One of its leading figures is Jason Crawford, the author of a blog called The Roots of Progress that explores the history of important inventions and discoveries. Recent posts have been wide-ranging: an explanation of an 1857 proposal to crowdfund a transcontinental railroad; a collection of horrifying stories about factory accidents and how workplace safety eventually grudgingly won the day; the story of steam-engine cars and why internal combustion engine cars beat them.

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Crawford worked in tech when he started Roots of Progress, and launched it as a nonprofit and full-time project only recently. I sat down with Crawford to talk about what progress is, what the progress studies movement brings to the table, and what he thinks is missing from our national conversation about inventions, discoveries, and the societies that succeed at encouraging them.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey Piper

What is progress to you?

Jason Crawford

Progress is anything that helps human beings live better lives: longer, happier,…
Kelsey Piper
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