Smart city, artificial intelligence… The keys to tomorrow’s growth

Restarting the Future. How to Fix the Intangible Economy,

by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. Princeton University Press, 320 p., €25.84.

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In 1931, John Maynard Keynes published a short essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, in which he considered the possibility of solving what he called “the economic problem”. According to him, the question of scarcity had to be resolved at the beginning of the 21st century. Decades of capitalism’s progress would have enabled society to produce enough resources to provide everyone with a satisfactory standard of living. The problem, he pointed out, would be finding enough ways to occupy his leisure time.

Ninety years later, Keynes’ prediction of abundance rings true. However, is the “economic problem” really solved today? Should we solve it by creating even more growth or make the fight against inequalities and for the environment the priority of all economic policy? This question fuels feverish debates between economists, without it being really decided yet.

The “economic problem” of our time? The backwardness of institutions

Two brilliant British economists have just made their own contribution. Jonathan Haskel is professor of economics at Imperial College Business School, and Stian Westlake is chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society. They had already published in 2017 a rather remarkable work, Capitalism without Capitaland they deepen the reflection they had then launched on the place of “intangibles” in the modern economy, basing themselves in particular on the example of Apple, the most expensive company in the world, and which does not hold yet almost no physical assets.

In this new book, the authors identify what, in their view, explains why “the economic problem” of our time is not yet solved: the delay of institutions in taking into account the change of capitalism and its revolution towards the intangible. They draw up a kind of list of areas where more public investment in intangibles would boost growth, such as fundamental research, the smart city, finance or artificial intelligence.

The central question posed in this book remains: would these massive investments in the intangible be likely to resolve the debates that fuel societies like ours today, the inequalities of wealth and income, the fear of downgrading, the calls for degrowth, the place of renewable energies…?


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Haskel and Westlake believe so, confident that they are on the theory that only economic growth can ensure political and social stability if the right “code” is found to free the market from the shackles that still prevent access to prosperity and happiness. But is creating more growth in an economy of plenty the most relevant way to solve today’s economic problem, when we are facing a serious environmental crisis? The question remains open, and John Maynard Keynes is of little help to us in trying to answer it.


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Smart city, artificial intelligence… The keys to tomorrow’s growth


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