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Tim Harford on Catastrophe and Innovation

Tim Harford has an excellent piece in the Financial Times that covers my work with the Kremer team on accelerating vaccines but weaves it into a larger panorama on the innovation slowdown and how barriers to innovation can sometimes break down with catastrophes.

There is no guarantee that a crisis always brings fresh ideas; sometimes a catastrophe is just a catastrophe. Still, there is no shortage of examples for when necessity proved the mother of invention, sometimes many times over.

The Economist points to the case of Karl von Drais, who invented an early model of the bicycle in the shadow of “the year without a summer” — when in 1816 European harvests were devastated by the after-effects of the gargantuan eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Horses were starved of oats; von Drais’s “mechanical horse” needed no food. It is a good example. But one might equally point to infant formula and beef extract, both developed by Justus von Liebig in response to the horrifying hunger he had witnessed in Germany as a teenager in 1816.

Read the whole thing. I also highly recommend, Tim’s new book, The Next Fifty on how seemingly simple things like the brick changed the world.

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