Open Letter on New Infrastructure as a Platform for Economic Growth and Scientific Innovation

Dear Thought Leaders Everywhere,

As you are no doubt well aware, one issue in particular is being brought to a head by the lingering economic malaise and the continuing situation in Europe: the austerity measures needed for countering debt problems are going to severely limit growth potentials, if they do not lead straight to recession or depression, unless sources of new efficiencies are found. Given the huge existing levels of debt, it is increasingly difficult to justify the capital injections the economy needs, so thinkers from Paul Krugman to Bill Clinton have proposed the possibility that some new technical infrastructure could provide a platform for new growth, much as the Internet has.

Energy might be a productive area to focus on, for instance. Others go straight to immediately available technologies, and speak of investments in existing infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. But even if a program for bringing that kind of concrete engineering up to full capacity was put in place, it would provide only a small fraction of the jobs and growth actually needed.

The basic idea is right on the mark, though no one seems to realize there are types of infrastructure beyond tangible assets like energy, or roads and bridges. Stop a second and think about it. We say we manage what we measure. Standardized weights and measures are widely recognized as an essential core feature of productivity and innovation in science, engineering, and the economy. But existing standardized metrics are exclusively focused on physics and chemistry, machines and tools, and property. And that’s the problem: manufactured capital and property make up only about 10% of all the capital under management.

What’s the other 90%? Human capital: skills, motivations, health. Social capital: trust, commitment, loyalty. Natural capital: water and air purification services, genetic variation, fisheries. Why don’t we have standardized weights and measures for managing these essential core areas of education, health care, human and natural resource management, social services, etc.? After all, if we manage what we measure, and we lack measures for the vast majority of the capital in the economy, we are probably lucky to be doing as well as we are. Our faith in efficient markets is not misplaced as much as we have not yet really made it central to the economics of every form of capital.

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t have standardized metrics for measuring individual amounts of intangible assets like human, social, and natural capital, but the supposed “subjectivity” of those forms of capital is NOT one of them. Decades of research and practice prove the viability of the technology needed for unifying the measurement of everything from literacy capital to health capital, from social capital to natural capital. What stands in our way as a society has much more to do with preconceptions and unexamined assumptions than with the supposed “soft” nature of the social sciences and psychology.

White papers published online by NIST and NSF, and a recent award-winning essay forthcoming in Standards Engineering (full references are listed below), provide rational justifications for a new research agenda focused on developing and implementing an intangible assets metric system. Such a system would enable us to act on the truth that we can accomplish far more working together cooperatively in a common framework than we can as individuals.

Better measurement is essential to better management. In the context of today’s pressing economic and social issues, new questions about the way we manage every form of resource need to be raised. You are in a position from which these questions can be effectively put forward for consideration by thought leaders across a wide array of disciplines and industries. We hope you will see fit to do so. If we can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to let us know. Thank you.

Sincerely,

William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.

A. Jackson Stenner, Ph.D.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep. No. http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards. Standards Engineering, forthcoming. For the ANSI press release, see http://webstore.ansi.org/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsGuid=590a225c-d779-4f81-804e-4d05ef239c37.)

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences White Paper Series). Retrieved 25 October 2011, from National Science Foundation: http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36.

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2 Responses to “Open Letter on New Infrastructure as a Platform for Economic Growth and Scientific Innovation”

  1. What the Economy Needs? « Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] previous posts (like this one or this one) in this blog, and several of my publications, have argued, manufactured capital and property have […]

  2. Moore’s Law at 50 | Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] technologies are, of course, some of the primary and recurring themes of this blog (here, here, here, and here) and presentations and publications of the last several years. For instance, Miller and […]

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