We think of inventors as geniuses with dishevelled hair, and their ideas as being bestowed on them at random via some form of miraculous conception. This way of thinking leads policymakers, rightly keen on encouraging more innovation, to focus on tax breaks to encourage more of these geniuses to get these ideas out of their heads and into the world.
But back in that real world, ideas don’t fall like manna from heaven; inventors are much more likely to come from certain backgrounds. Research from 2017 showed that if your parents are in the richest 1% of the US population you’re 10 times more likely to become an inventor than if you’re born into the poorer half of households. Inventors are bred rather than born – growing up in an area with lots of innovators hugely increases the chance that you’ll be an inventor.
The authors concluded that we should stop focusing on tax breaks and start doing what we can to find the “lost Einsteins” from lower-income households.
But the fact that inventors are hugely unrepresentative of the population matters for another reason: it shapes what gets invented. So concludes a new, suitably innovative, study. Inventors focus on products that meet the needs of people of similar age/gender/income to themselves.
Given that we like innovations because they drive down the cost or raise the quality of products, the concentration of inventors among higher-income families has real cost of living implications, increasing inequality, while the fact that inventors are overwhelmingly male has obvious implications. The lesson is that there are limits to all our imaginations, even for those of an innovative bent.