The measure of all things

Ten years ago, Ken Alder, an American historian and writer, published The measure of all things. The book narrates the adventure of the scientists who, in the midst of the French Revolution, gave to the world one of the best known, useful conventions: the length of the meter, based on measurements of the 0 meridian.

Beyond the adventures and hardships of the two researchers in question, which are exceptionally well described in the ARTE channel documentary Un mètre pour mesurer le monde (in French), the book highlights the need for international agreement on the measurement, organization and assessment of products and services that are used frequently in modern societies, and whose internationalization and management above state level makes globalization possible.

Just over a month ago, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis announced, along with other measures designed to recalculate the country’s GDP more efficiently, that R&D activities would be counted in the analysis as an investment rather than an expense.

This initiative is in line with measures already implemented in countries such as Australia and Canada, and it is hoped that the measure will be extended to Europe in 2014, following United Nations recommendations.

We will only be able to assess the importance of the initiative once time has passed. However, its adoption alone supports policies for the development of innovation at global scale, due to the USA’s major role in innovation, and its influence over the rest of the industrialized nations.

The initiative promotes the change in culture called for by many researchers, managers and businesspeople: to develop a production model that focuses on innovation rather than on other parameters, such as price, that are double-edged swords.

Many believe that innovation should be considered an investment rather than an expense, as the countries that carry out the most research are those that obtain better results. Thus, the US initiative is a clear indication of the direction the leading world power aims to take, also in the area of research and development.

Innovation appears to be a need and, at the same time, an opportunity for resolving structural problems that hamper the economy and hold back growth. The idea is to replace the concept of an expense with that of investment, for an activity that many public and private organizations continue to treat with mistrust. In this way, we can change the measurement of a key concept, in the midst of a situation that seems similar to a revolution.

Perhaps in two hundred years someone will write a novel about it.

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