Modern societies can amass large amounts of productive knowledge because they distribute bits and pieces of it among its many members. But to make use of it, this knowledge has to be put back together through organizations and markets. Thus, individual specialization begets diversity at the national and global level. Our most prosperous modern societies are wiser, not because their citizens are individually brilliant, but because these societies hold a diversity of knowhow and because they are able to recombine it to create a larger variety of smarter and better products.
That’s from the preface to The Atlas of Economic Complexity, an intriguing new piece of mind- and eye candy. According to its authors, the atlas…
attempts to measure the amount of productive knowledge that each country holds. Our measure of productive knowledge can account for the enormous income differences between the nations of the world and has the capacity to predict the rate at which countries will grow. In fact, it is much more predictive than other well-known development indicators, such as those that attempt to measure competitiveness, governance and education.
I can’t get the online visualization tool to work properly, but the country charts in the downloadable PDF (warning: 75MB) nicely show what the data can do.
More frustrating, I can’t find a way to access the underlying data. I suspect that economic complexity is more tightly associated with risks of violent conflict and processes of democratization than per capita income is, and I suspect that the relationship between economic complexity and economic growth is conditioned by the design of a country’s political institutions. The data in the atlas could be used to test both of those conjectures, but you’d actually need the data to do that. I’ll try writing the authors; in the meantime, if any readers find a link I’m overlooking, please share in a comment.
PS. Here’s a nice blog post from Aid on the Edge of Chaos that goes into much more detail on what the atlas measures and how it might be useful.