Business TEDTalks

The future of work and innovation: Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson debate at TED2013

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Robert Gordon: The death of innovation, the end of growthRobert Gordon: The death of innovation, the end of growthEconomists Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolffson see very different things when they look at the stagnation of the U.S. economy in recent years. It’s almost as if they’re looking at an optical illusion image – one seeing a candlestick while the other sees two faces just inches apart. In today’s talks, they both outlined their thoughts.

Gordon sees the candlestick — he believes that the growth could be tapering off for good and that our best innovations may be behind us. As he points out, between 1900 and 1960, we went from traveling by a horse and buggy to taking Boeing 707s. But in the sixty years since, we haven’t learned to go any faster at a mass commercial level. What’s wrong? In his talk, he outlines four headwinds which are keeping us from continued growth at the pace of the past two centuries: demographics, education, debt and inequality.

Erik Brynjolfsson: The key to growth? Race with the machinesErik Brynjolfsson: The key to growth? Race with the machinesMeanwhile, Brynjolfsson sees the faces. He says that the stagnation may simply be growing pains as we move from an economy based on production to one based on ideas. He also looks to the past for an example, taking us back 120 years to the Second Industrial Revolution. While all the tools were in place for mass production, it took three decades for productivity to skyrocket. The first generation of managers — who had old ideas about systems and workflows – had to age out of the system for growth to start. This is where Brynjolfsson thinks we are now. He sees another wave of innovation in our future — if humans can learn to work alongside computers and robots in more symbiotic ways.

Click the links above to watch these two fascinating talks. And then watch this 12-minute debate between the Gordon and Brynjolfsson on what it means to work today … and what it will mean in the future.

Do you think we are witnessing the end of innovation? Is growth over? Did either speaker here change your opinion? Explain in the comments.

Comments (35)

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  • martin morrissey commented on May 13 2013

    The vote at the end of this video brought a very disturbing realization to me.
    I think we can assume that the audience were atleast of average intelligence and yet 40% of them would rather have third world standards of hygeine so they can use the internet?…..Closed plumbing systems are not just a convenience they are by far the biggest step forward ever in modern medicine and health.
    I love the internet but what use is it when the mouse and keyboard are covered in ecoli?
    Erik is an inspiration dreamer but Robert is way more realistic, technology by itself cannot save us, we must see through it’s glitter and ask ourselves who it is making richer and more powerful and why.
    It is a problem of perception, for instance so much credit was given to social media for the “Arab Spring” as if that was a solution in itself? What has happened in those Facebook liberated nations since? there is still rampant unemployment, government corruption and now religious administrations set to take women’s rights backwards a hundred years.

    The internet is fascinating and very entertaining but you can’t eat it or use it for shelter.

  • commented on Apr 29 2013

    Reblogged this on Arsalan Khan and commented:
    Different views by two economists about the future…

  • commented on Apr 28 2013

    Reblogged this on Nafka Mina and commented:
    Interesting debate on the future of the US economy, given different views on whether innovation has run its course.

  • Jason Kemp commented on Apr 27 2013

    After watching a debate a few times I think Gordon won this one although I would have preferred Brynjolffson to be the winner.

    The reason for that is because Gordon came up with changes in 3 areas that might address the problem that technology innovation mostly benefits a few ( the top 1%) and the 99% are left wearing the downside because jobs will disappear.

    Gordon’s answers are controversial and I would like to see more on that in future talks.

    The other big issue based on the examples that have been used in both separate talks by Gordon and Brynjolffson and then in the debate are problems of measurement.

    Having in indoor plumbing is easier to measure than having digital music downloads or is it.

    Comparing the innovation used in solving basic human needs to the innovation that addresses higher order needs is more of a quality rather than a quantity indicator.

    I wonder if something like the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators might be more useful in such debates.

    The other obvious driver for economic growth in the 20th century was fossil fuel. We are in transition from that now towards other energy sources such as electric cars and more use of solar energy.

    Our economic systems are run by bean-counters more concerned with squeezing the last $ from say oil than on improving the quality of life that might be gained from other energy sources.

    • Jose Font commented on Apr 28 2013

      Having indoor plumbing is, too me, far more important than having a music app on my phone. I can always listen to my CD’s… or my cassettes… or my LPs. The problem western society has is that, for the most part, all that is needed for a very comfortable life has already existed for a while. When domestic appliances, AC, cars, etc. first came on the market they benefited lives tangibly. Now, “upgrading” your car may be nice for the ego but it doesn’t get you to work faster. Consumerism is the engine that drives our economy and without employed people it will die… “ideas” won’t solve that.

      • Jason Kemp commented on Apr 28 2013

        Depending on measurement points about 70% of US economy is consumer driven. In China – less than half that. This is exactly the problem we have in “the West” – our baseline ( food, clothing, shelter etc.) are covered and many of the other things we spend $ on are really essential but they do underpin the economy and provide service jobs for the most part.

        If we de-couple the the consumer spend even by a few percentage points ( in current economic conditions) a major growth engine is gone. Yes there is a replacement markest for appliances and other consumer items but when the real wages are reducing over time rather than increasing we spend more on servicing debt and paying for rising heath & housing costs.

        See Elizabeth Warren’s research on that. On the trend towards collaborative consumerism see Rachel Botsman and others as well as “green” & other sustainable groups who think we should re-use as well as recycle.

        That makes sense in our personal lives but unless we find another growth engine for “the economy” it does lead to less jobs overall and declining growth.

        Germany’s solar industry has had some massive growth over the past few years. Subsidised by governments in part but it does reduce dependency on fossil fuels and smarter resource usage like water.

        There used to be 6 headwinds in Robert Gordon’s thesis – one of which was environmental concerns. I’m not sure what happened to that as only 4 are mentioned in this talk.

  • Josie Klapper commented on Apr 25 2013

    Dr Gordon is missing how “technology” paragrams have historically behaved. Moore’s Law is used as the “classic” application in that as soon as one technology segment reaches its apex another one takes it’s place; vacuum tubes replaced with transistors replaced with chips presumably to be replaced with nano-tech…
    To think that “we” have hit the top when just 2 of the current pipeline technologies say differently is to ignore history and reality. For good or ill Biotech and Noanotech, and possibly some newer technologies that we don’t even have on our radar, will hurtle us past any seeming pinnacle in future development. Always have, always will, that’s just the history of human development over the last 100,000 some odd years.

  • elayne dublin commented on Apr 25 2013

    til I looked at the check saying $8404, I accept …that…my mother in law truley making money in their spare time at their laptop.. there brothers friend started doing this for under 19 months and resantly repaid the loans on there villa and purchased a gorgeous Land Rover Defender. this is where I went, KEP2.COM

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  • Tracfone Expert commented on Apr 24 2013

    Nice debate .

  • Justin Morgan commented on Apr 23 2013

    Now I’ll be the first to say I’m not some genius. I may be ignoring vital information that’s in my face and I don’t see it out of pure ignorance. But I’ll give my take regardless.

    First, why are we only worried about the United States. Everyone all over the world is human, the USA (which I have no problems with) doesn’t have the only good ideas out there and it may sound naive to say this, but we need to let go of just helping ourselves and realize that ever since we invented things like electricity and technology, the world got bigger! Now we interact with the WHOLE world, therefore we need to progress with the WHOLE world. The globe now has a stake in progress. It’s time to stop viewing people in other countries as “the people over there doing there ideas, while we over here do our ideas” and start having ideas together!

    We made it to the moon people, you think that’s where it stops?!? The universe has been laid out before us. Our ideas are just beginning. This all boils down (in my opinion) to education. We don’t educate people to see themselves as inventors. We still educate people as labor workers and those workers are becoming obsolete! I’d recommend watching Sir Ken Robinson. His TedTalks back up the idea that we need to start educating people to have ideas! To unlock peoples creative potential!

    Once we become one as a human race (meaning share ideas globally) and revolutionize education, only then will we be able to move forward with ideas/innovations and a secure way of living. But hey…thats just me. I’m just a 26 year old Canadian kid…

    • Deepali Agarwal commented on Apr 25 2013

      I think you nailed it when you said “We don’t educate people to see themselves as inventors. We still educate people as labor workers”.
      As for why US, I am not to sure but I believe you missed it when RG should do away with travel visa and allow Chinese to travel to US and some of the bright minds might as well stay and innovate something. And I believe that is where RG is in agreement with you saying that ” It’s time to stop viewing people in other countries as “the people over there doing there ideas, while we over here do our ideas” and start having ideas together!”

    • Werner Stapela commented on Jul 31 2013

      Have a look at my recent posting: and I’m a 61 year old Hun! I suspect common ground.

  • ROBERT BIERMA commented on Apr 23 2013

    This whole debate gets to the underlying idea of how of the value of the economy can be from ideas. In a world that we are progressing towards where a greater proportion of economic value will have to be made up of ideas, what does that look like? How does it operate? Or the biggest question in my mind, what is the upper limit for the percentage of an economy (and/or the global economy) that can be made up of ideas. Is it possible to have an economy where 90% of GDP is ideas?

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