Innovation – Horizontal and Vertical Progress

In the book Zero to One Peter Thiel (member of the PayPal mafia) distinguishes between two types of progress:

  • Horizontal or extensive progress
  • Vertical or intensive progress

Horizontal or extensive progress

Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work. It is going from 1 to N. It isn’t to hard to imagine horizontal progress. We already know what the base looks like.

From another level horizontal progress is globalisation. It is taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere.

Vertical or intensive progress

Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things. It is going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something that nobody else has ever done.

The single word for vertical progress is technology. However there is no reason that technology is limited to computers! Any new of better way to do things is considered technology.

Technology matters more that globalisation

Thiel states that if the future would be just about globalisation it would be catastrophic. If without any technological advancement just China and India would copy the way we live in Europe and North America, we would need to scale energy production and utility of scarce resources to such an extend that would devastate our planet. Spreading (copying) old or even current ways to create wealth are not sustainable. We need technology to advance our ways to create wealth in a sustainable way.

The thing is that although since the invention of the steam engine around 1760 up to around the 1970 there has been a tremendous technological progress. Creating more wealth and well-being for each generation. And we expected this to continue. But did it? But a better future doesn’t come automatic. Since the late 1960’s only computers and communications have improved dramatically.

Just think of Eroom’s Law: the observation that drug discovery is becoming slower and more expensive over time. This isn’t a new trend. It was first discovered in the 1980’s.

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