Our wants and needs exceed our resources. Always have, always will. The problem is in our limitless desires rather than the limited assets. At various times in history, we effectively increased our resources through innovation. Theories of what happened when and who gets credit came later. Most of those theories, even those which influenced history, were short-sighted, wrong, or selling a doctrine.
To review, people throughout history understood that land and materials (tools, seed, water, etc.) were necessary to life. Their effective management led to trade, civilization, nations, empires, and wars. Not all of those were beneficial even though all were sold as necessary.
Starting in the eighteenth century, people theorized about how economies worked and how to improve them. Adam Smith defined the role of capital and the assembly line manufacturing. Karl Marx posited that labor was the critical component of wealth and preached revolution. Some modern economists declare that government regulation, if not control, is essential to prosperity. Efficiency, utility, divine right, necessity, social justice were all advanced as the prime driver of economics.
Some were partly right, but the essential ingredient to progress is innovation. The improvements in fire, the wheel, metallurgy, seed selection, crop rotation, the assembly line, electric power, integrated circuits, media, and communication, whether breakthroughs or incremental, all resulted from people seeing a better way to do things. If necessity was the mother of invention, laziness was the father.
Just because we don’t know their names does not negate those whose spark of genius recognized a new material, a new use, a approach which revolutionized their world. Not just Archimedes, Newton, Einstein, but Whitney, Ford, Gates, and Musk. Many whose name we don’t know but whose innovation changed how we live.
That spark—that “ahha” moment occurs to many people in many circumstances. Unfortunately, most don’t have the means to capitalize on their insight. One feature of modern society is widespread access to ideas, resources, capital, and talented workers. The critical role is not the venture capitalist, the skilled craftsman, the software writer, but the innovator. It’s no accident that the last century has seen an acceleration of innovation, knowledge, and standards of living. For most people. It’s not equally distributed, it never was.
Creativity cannot be dictated. China is demonstrating this principle. In recent decades, the party loosened their grip on money, ideas, and people. The result was a great leap in the creation of wealth. Now the party is reasserting the iron fist of totalitarianism. Want to bet on the outcome? Totalitarian cultures steal from free enterprise, and quotas and price control lead to stagnation. And cheating.
So how do we motivate creativity? We don’t. It’s there. The question is, how do we encourage and benefit from it?