Skip to content

What would a “progress agenda” look like?

If our goal is to effect the greatest possible progress, what would it look like to approach this holistically? What might need to dispositionaly in how we approach solving our most important problems—at an individual level, a community level, or at a civilizational or global one? We asked our experts to think big picture about how what new thinking would be required to create a larger pro-progress framework.

About the project

The goal of driving more progress across the world—scientifically, politically, economically, socially, etc—is one shared by many. And yet, debates about the best way to maximize progress continue. After all, how, exactly, does progress happen? What are the best ways to measure progress? What should we prioritize? How do we nurture it and how are we stifling it? 

Since Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their essay in The Atlantic a few years ago calling for “a more focused, explicit study of progress”, there has been an increased interest and discussion about how we better understand the drivers of progress and apply those findings to improve our world.

But, of course, there continue to be robust debates on where exactly to focus our efforts and what to prioritize. To better understand those current debates, we spoke with a handful of experts from a variety of disciplines and asked them the same ten questions about the nature of progress and what they see as the priorities that deserve our collective attention.

Click here to browse all the questions »

Rutger Bregman
Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author

If you would’ve stood on a street corner in the year 1750 and you would’ve said, “Let’s abolish slavery.” Then nine out of 10 people would’ve said, “You’re nuts. You’re crazy.” They would’ve started laughing. The 10th person would’ve said, “Well, look, in theory, I agree with you, but practically that’s never going to happen. Abolishing slavery would wreck the economy.”

We also know that in the hundred years after that the abolitionists were successful. They were able to expand the moral circle and they fought this incredible fight that first started with the fight against the slave trade, which was abolished in the British Empire in 1807, and then against slavery itself. There’s this extraordinary moment in 1840 when there’s the International Conference of Abolitionists, who for the first time they come together. Abolitionists from all around the world, from Sierra Leone, from the United States, from France. You name it. They celebrate their victories because slavery had just been abolished in the British empire. Now, it’s time to basically change the rest of the world!

There’s this moment just after they had this big celebration and they were all clapping and crying. It was just really an emotional moment. Then they asked the question, “Okay, but what about the women?” Because quite a few important abolitionists were women. They’d done most of the work, especially in the 1820s in Great Britain. The question arose, “Are they allowed to speak? Are they allowed to vote during this conference?” 

The men said, “Well, of course not.”

The women were relegated to the balconies. They could sit there and watch the men celebrate the victory against slavery.

I think that’s just an example of how it never ends. Obviously, then we have the Women’s Movement after that and the huge fight for women’s right to vote. Now, I think one of the biggest fights we’re in is the fight against factory farming, and the horrible abuse of millions, billions of animals around the globe. There’s still just so much that needs to be done there. That’s what I think of when I think of a progress agenda. There’s always another step that we need to take in expanding the moral circle of concern.

“I think that’s just an example of how it never ends. … There’s always another step that we need to take in expanding the moral circle of concern.”

Dr. Hannah Ritchie
Head of Research, Our World in Data

I think it’s very easy to initially just jump into the solving bit of it, but I actually think an initial part is to actually step back and first identify what the largest problems are. I think we can get into this mindset of seeing everything as a problem and treating all of those problems as equal. And a really fundamental point is they’re not equal, there are orders of magnitude, differences in the cost and benefits of solving different problems. So I think actually a first step is taking a step back to look at, what are the biggest problems? Which are the most tangible problems to solve? And what does that cost-benefit look like in terms of where we allocate resources? I think that’s the fundamental place we need to start.

Then once we’ve actually identified, these are the largest problems that we can solve, we know we can solve them, it’s looking at who’s already solved them. How did they solve them? What were the factors that went into that? Is there stuff that we can replicate? Maybe there’s stuff we can’t replicate, and again, that raises another question of why that’s not replicable? But I think looking at success stories, why they worked, can they be replicated is then the next step.

Charles Kenny
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

So, again, on the material side to some extent I think it’s fairly easy, more research, more development, but in particular giving more people the opportunity to innovate and the equality of opportunity to innovate. We’ve got a planet with nearly eight billion potential Einsteins on it, but actually only a reasonably small percentage of those people are likely to end up with the education and the opportunity to create something new, to discover something new. And so if there was one thing I’d want to do to make sure material progress continued, it would be to get a lot more people that opportunity. And I think that’s about migration. It’s about greater equality within countries, greater equality of educational opportunities, and so on.

When it comes to the non-material stuff, I actually think material progress really helps. I’m no Marxist. I certainly don’t think that the one thing you need in order to have non-material progress is material progress, that once we’ve got the technology, the superstructure will take care of itself. I don’t believe that, but I do think there are some grounds for believing that a high level of material well-being is one factor behind improving these non-material elements. But I’m less clear on what the rest of the picture is there.

“We’ve got a planet with nearly eight billion potential Einsteins on it, but actually only a reasonably small percentage of those people are likely to end up with the education and the opportunity to create something new.”

Alec Stapp
Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress

Yeah, I think it’s really about focusing on a certain set of issues where it’s possible to have agreement across a broad political spectrum. So a progress agenda, in our opinion, should be cross-partisan in nature. So you can get both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C., Republicans and Democrats, to support the same policy, but maybe for different reasons. For example, on science and technology issues, there’s a recent bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, which was bipartisan. Many Republicans voted for it. Most Democrats voted for it. And the Democrats voted for it because they wanted to support science as an institution, support our public universities, get more funding for academics and Republicans supported it because they wanted to stay competitive with China and realize that being the global leader and continuing to be the global leader in science and technology was our best means of doing that. And so they end up voting for the same bill for different reasons, but you get concrete progress in D.C. policy making. And that applies to a wide variety of areas that actually don’t get a lot of attention on cable news right now, that’s more culture war stuff, but I don’t think that’s what the meat of a progress agenda should or would include.

“So a progress agenda, in our opinion, should be cross-partisan in nature.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter
CEO, New America

Well, it sounds somewhat tautological, but I actually believe we do need to believe in progress. So I’m a liberal, I’d say I’m a center-left progressive liberal. I don’t love any of the labels. But I have often been accused, particularly in my earlier academic career, of being in love with progress narratives, right? And liberals are accused of believing in progress. And what that means is, we love this kind of Whiggish view of history where everything’s getting better. 

And that blinds us to the huge costs of that progress. So the obvious examples are progress for white people in the United States at tremendous costs to people of color. Progress for Europeans at tremendous costs to Africa, Latin America, Asia.

I take on board all of those criticisms, and simplistic progress narratives are problematic. Which is why I believe in reckoning, and renewal, and holding to account all of that. But I also believe that human beings cannot actually achieve progress without believing that it’s possible. And that a view that says we just go round and round in circles. I mean, I like to think of it at least as an upward spiral. Or a view that says the unintended consequences will always overwhelm the intended consequences. Those are counsels of despair, and you may not make progress, but it… Hillary Clinton always said she wanted to die trying. And I would prefer that, than to this sort of nihilistic, well, it’s all politics, it’s all bad. It’s all power.

“Simplistic progress narratives are problematic. But I also believe that human beings cannot actually achieve progress without believing that it’s possible.”

Parag Khanna
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap

Well, a progress agenda should be an interlocking series of initiatives that seek to improve human well-being in a sustainable fashion. We have the knowledge, we have the technology and the tools to achieve progress in a number of domains. Think about health or energy, but we do them in a parallel way rather than an integrated fashion. Instead, we should really do them much more holistically. I think that having these various progress-related initiatives and specific domains actually integrate with each other is going to be really key to taking the partial or incremental parallel progress that we have today in making it something much more comprehensive.

“I think that having these various progress-related initiatives actually integrate with each other is going to be really key.”

Eli Dourado
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

We need to make some pretty big changes. At the broadest level, we need to make it easier for people to try new ideas at scale in the physical world. 

Think about if you invented the automobile today, you’d say to the regulator, “I have this new machine that is going to revolutionize human mobility, create new opportunity, more deeply integrate the country both economically and culturally, and I need your help.” And I think it would quickly come out that this invention was going to kill 40,000 Americans per year. It was going to require a giant road network, which means taking up some portions of people’s lands and building roads on it. It was going to create pollution of course. It’s going to put lots of jobs in the horse economy out of business, and the list goes on. 

So if you invented the automobile today, you’d be opposed by the public. You’d be banned by the regulator for safety reasons, the necessary supporting infrastructure would never get built, and the whole invention would be moot because you need all these supporting pieces to work at the same time or you have nothing. So if you want progress, you need to make it possible for an entrepreneur to do something that is risky, inconvenient for the public, maybe not environmentally perfect, maybe a challenge to incumbent industries. In other words, we need to make it possible and maybe even easy for people to try slightly scary things and to see if they work.

“We need to make it possible and maybe even easy for people to try slightly scary things and to see if they work.”

Saloni Dattani
Founding Editor, Works in Progress

I think these are things that are being done already, but don’t have enough attention given to them. So one is learning from the past to learn how humanity has tackled big problems in history, including the mistakes that were made or the downsides and how that has happened, to avoid making those mistakes again, but still help people develop and grow. 

Another is identifying problems with the status quo and identifying risks that might occur in the future. For example, in the 20th century, a lot of pollutants such as lead and CFCs and DDT grew in use and had major consequences. So thinking about how those risks could occur in the future would be extremely important. 

So the risks of pandemics, for example, as well, have grown over time with the effects of climate change and factory farming. We should think about whether there are similar risks that are growing in the future and find ways to avoid and reduce them. And another part of the progress agenda, I would say, is having people able to exchange knowledge openly and democratically. It’s very difficult to know who might find your knowledge valuable or who might be able to identify new problems or solutions. So it’s important to make information clear and accessible to a wide range of people who might be able to build on it.

“Another part of the progress agenda is having people able to exchange knowledge openly and democratically.”

Jim Pethokoukis
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

Well, I think it’s important that policymakers think about anything they do through a freedom-to-build-and-innovate mindset. Is what they’re doing making that harder or easier? I think two huge drawbacks over the past half-century, where I don’t think we’ve had the kind of progress measured in a variety of ways that we might have imagined at the start of that half-century, is we’re certainly not investing in science the way we should. And I think we’ve made it super hard to build in the real world. I think when we began to not invest as much and we began to make it harder to build, we didn’t necessarily anticipate where we would be today. I think most decisions are made hoping that they’ll turn out great. In this case, they haven’t. And we’ve been very slow, I think, to overcorrect in those two areas, particularly research. Too little research and too much regulation make it hard to make the changes and create that world we want to live in.

Brad DeLong
Professor of Economics, University of California at Berkeley

Much more attention to, say the downsides of technological developments. I was reading Winston Churchill writing after World War I, his history of World War I, and about how the people like him who had marveled at all the technological inventions in progress of 1870 to 1914, had not fully realized what that technological progress meant for how destructive war would be. Even though Churchill had for some time been in the British Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. That is the person in charge of procuring the guns with the 15 inch barrels, that throw multi-ton shells 15 miles, where they then go boom. And if anyone has no excuse for not recognizing it, it’s him.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

So more attention to where our technology is taking us, and how we should be forming it, and also how we need to form it in such a way that it empowers people, rather than organizations, or than the… I don’t want to say the remnants, but the functioning force-and-fraud exploitation, extraction, and domination machine, the thugs with spears, with their tame accountants, propagandists, and bureaucrats, and so forth. Say the feeling of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, or of Steve Jobs and company’s 1984 Macintosh commercial, that this is technology in the service of the individual human mind, rather than technology in terms of the inhuman system that dominates us all.

Joan Blades
Co-founder,  Living Room Conversations

Well, staying consistent with the same theme, the first thing we need to work on is building connection and trust. We got to meet where they’re at, identify our core shared values, and it’s remarkable how many core shared values we have when we come from that orientation. And then now we need to be nurturing, generosity, creativity, kindness, and the capacity to see things differently and still see the best in each other.


Up Next