Introducing Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World

Chelsea Follett

“Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace,” as urban economist Edward Glaesar explains in his book The Triumph of the City.

Athens’s storied breakthroughs in philosophy are but one example of how cities have often been the sites of pivotal advances throughout history. Kyoto gave us the novel. Bologna gave us the university. Florence gave us the Renaissance. Paris gave us the Enlightenment. Manchester gave us the Industrial Revolution. Los Angeles gave us cinema. Postwar New York gave us modern finance … the list goes on.

As Glaeser also notes, “Wandering these cities—whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid‐​cutting cross streets, around roundabouts or under freeways—is to study nothing less than human progress.”

If you’re not able to travel to each of these extraordinary cities, perhaps the next best thing is to embark on a virtual tour from the comfort of your home. To that end, I wrote a book surveying 40 of history’s greatest urban centers, showcasing each city at a moment in time when it notably contributed to progress.

Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World offers a fact‐​filled yet accessible crash course in global urban history, spanning from the agricultural revolution to the digital revolution. This book affirms the importance of cities to the story of human progress and innovation by shining a spotlight on some of the places that have helped create the modern world.

The book’s chapters can guide you through the Library of Alexandria, the stock exchange of Dutch Golden Age‐​era Amsterdam, and the pubs of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, all in an afternoon.

Centers of Progress “takes the reader on a time‐​travel cruise through the great flash points of human activity to catch innovations that have transformed human lives” at their moment of invention, according to writer Matt Ridley in the insightful foreword he kindly provided. Come explore Agra as the Taj Mahal was erected and Cambridge as Isaac Newton penned the Principia. Meet engineers in Ancient Rome, Silk Road merchants in Tang Dynasty Chang’an, music composers in 19th‐​century Vienna, and Space Age flight controllers in Houston.

Learning about past achievements may even hold the secret to fostering innovation in the present.

As I note in the book, “Although there are some exceptions, most cities reach their creative peak during periods of peace. Most centers of progress also thrive during times of relative social, intellectual, and economic freedom, as well as openness to intercultural exchange and trade. And centers of progress tend to be highly populated.… Identifying those common denominators among the places that have produced history’s greatest achievements is one way to learn what causes progress in the first place. After all, change is a constant, but progress is not.”

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to Hong Kong’s transformation from a war‐​ravaged “barren island” into a prosperous metropolis, many of the stories featured in Centers of Progress hold valuable lessons about the importance of ideas, people, and freedom. I hope that you will consider joining me on a journey through the book’s pages to some of history’s greatest centers of progress.

Surprisingly, the World Is Becoming More Equal

Chelsea Follett

Reading the news or listening to politicians and pundits speak, one could easily get the impression that global inequality is getting worse. But is the widely held belief that the world is becoming less equal true, or is it mistaken? The overwhelming majority of long‐​term trends regarding living standards—ranging from rising life expectancy to declining rates of poverty and hunger—show considerable improvement, even accounting for recent pandemic‐​related setbacks. You can explore the evidence for yourself on websites such as Human​Progress​.org. Have those improvements been widely shared, or have they accumulated mainly to a small population while much of the world is left behind?

That’s what George Mason University economist Vincent Geloso and I set out to discover. What we found is that while global inequality unquestionably still exists, it is in fact shrinking.

Our Inequality of Human Progress Index offers a new way of measuring global inequality. It is more comprehensive than any prior international inequality index, taking into account a greater number of dimensions. We found that in addition to a global decline in income inequality, there have also been declines in lifespan inequality, nutritional inequality, educational inequality, internet access inequality, and political liberty inequality. Around the world, gaps in these areas are shrinking.

Most importantly, there has been a decline in overall global inequality. That result was consistent, even under a variety of specifications that we tested. The data show that across all but two of the areas we examined, the world has become more equal since 1990. The data does not support the narrative of rising worldwide inequality.

The exceptions were infant survival inequality and clean air inequality. While infant mortality has decreased everywhere, it has fallen faster in rich countries with advanced medical technology and neonatal intensive care units. Clean air inequality has also gone up, probably because economic development often results in more pollution during industrialization before falling as a nation attains postindustrial prosperity—a tendency economists call the “environmental Kuznets curve.” Much of the world is still undergoing this transition.

Our research shows that improvements in international development have been both greater and more dispersed than many people realize. While there are still gaps, they are shrinking, and an accurate assessment of current trends is critical as we try to deepen our understanding of the drivers of human progress. The greater global interconnectedness and market liberalization of the past few decades have, it seems, not only raised absolute living standards but also equality. The world is not only better off than is commonly appreciated but also more equal.