The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis


Frank Neffke | Organizing complexity: the changing social technology behind team work (1850-1940)

03 March 2021, 5:00 pm–6:00 pm

CASA Seminar Series 2020/21

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Dr Max Nathan

The economic growth the world has experienced since the industrial revolution is without precedent in human history. The leading explanation for this growth acceleration is technological progress and the structural transformation it sets in motion. Recently, a new set of tools that help study structural transformation has become available, but our understanding is still held back by a lack of adequate data to study a phenomenon that unfolds on a time scale of decades or even centuries. To address this, we constructed a new database for this purpose. To do so, we digitized USPTO patent data and linked them to the complete censuses of the U.S. for the period 1850 to 1940. The result is a geocoded, longitudinal dataset of the careers, family relations and inventive activity for hundreds of millions of individuals for a period in which the U.S. transformed from a farming economy into an industrial and technological powerhouse. In a first application, we use the data to address a particular conundrum in technological progress. Technological progress means that the global body of knowledge increases. However, because people cannot acquire an unlimited amount of knowledge, it needs to be distributed across an expanding number of experts. To use this distributed know-how, the world needs to figure out how to organize these experts in teams. We show that technological progress set in motion a professionalization of innovation in the U.S. that coincided with a drastic shift in the main organizational technology for team work.

About the Speaker

Frank Neffke

at Harvard University

Frank Neffke is the Research Director of the Growth Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on economic transformation and growth. He has written on a variety of topics, such as structural transformation and new growth paths in regional economies, economic complexity, division of labor and teams, the consequences of job displacement and the future of work. Before joining the Growth Lab, Frank worked as an assistant professor at the Erasmus School of Economics in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

More about Frank Neffke