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.