Last updated: 16 october, 2009 - 13:56 GMT

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ideas

About this programme by Peter Day

A few years ago, my son Jon, just out of his teens, interrupted the routine chat round our Sunday lunch table with an imperative request. "Let’s talk about ideas," he said, exasperatedly.

He wasn't being priggish or even clever; it was just an urgent need, and an electric moment. Even so I can't remember what we talked about as a result.

But in radio we do have the good fortune to be able to talk about ideas from time to time.

Two years ago I wrote an article for a British Sunday paper about the Internet downloading success we have been having with the podcasting of Global Business, and its sister UK programme In Business. "Radio is music, chat, but most of all it is about ideas," I said. "Podcasting is going some way to redefine the ideas that interest our audience."

The US media blogger Jeff Jarvis picked up on this and commented: "I wonder how many broadcasters in the US would think that radio is about ideas, but of course it is."

What I meant about that is that radio is naturally about ideas; it happens in the listeners head, not on the screen. Since we don’t have the picture imperative to illuminate the subject or distract viewers from it, the job is to replace the pictures with ideas that are just as compelling as visual effects.


And that is why it was so interesting to run into Paul Romer the other day at the London School of Economics, where he was on a flying visit from California. Paul Romer is a fellow of economics at Stanford University, part of that extraordinary cluster, Silicon Valley USA.

Twelve years ago the newsmagazine Time named him as one of the 25 most influential people in the USA.

One of his specialities is the Economics of Ideas. Out of the physical world that economics was grounded in for 200 or 300 years, things have got progressively lighter. The world economy is bigger than it has ever been before, but it does not weigh as much as it did.

And ideas play an increasingly dominant part in economic and business life: patents, copyrights, brands, techniques and, well, just ideas.

Physical objects are often scarce; economic growth is often limited by that scarcity. Conventional economics is the so-called dismal science, dominated by the law of diminishing returns where businesses compete with each other into their ultimate extinction, capitalism making the rope to hang itself.

Paul Romer disagrees, profoundly. Ideas are what makes the difference, and turn economics into the optimistic science. And in the networked world, in software, in new research-heavy disciplines such as biotechnology, ideas are shared across frontiers at lightening speed and then breed much faster than rabbits.


And then they change our familiar, physical world, as well.

Paul Romer has other big ideas. Surprisingly, the causes of economic growth is one subject that many economists are shy of thinking about. He isn't.

And he is fascinating when he talks about the need to build new cities to accommodate a growing world population in better conditions than we have managed up to now, developing new rules, laws and norms for urban life.

This is exhilarating stuff.

Best of all is the way he describes what he is doing. Paul Romer says: "There’s a little corner of economics where there still exists a sense of wonder about what is possible."



Previous updates - October


  • The media is going through a 'double-mangle' says Peter Day.

  • In San Diego, Peter Day investigates the company that produces WD40's secret formula.

  • Peter Day looks back on a year of the credit crunch with Simon Johnson, former chief economist for the IMF.

  • Peter Day finds out from the experts how to start a bank.

  • Peter Day looks at the great expectations in landlocked Bolivia and its part in the auto revolution.


  • Peter Day asks whether the credit crunch crisis creates a big opportunity for women.

  • Peter Day finds out how to make money out of commodities in the developing world.

  • Peter Day looks at the new communications methods that are changing the way firms do their training.



  • Peter Day finds out how to innovate your way out of an economic downturn.

  • A sense of time and place is changing Internet businesses everywhere.

  • Social entrepreneurs from Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt who are all innovating and confronting poverty in new ways.

  • A look at a hugely successful childrens TV series and it's boss Magnus Scheving.

  • No business school has a more daunting image than Harvard, 100 years old last year.


  • Intel is going to appeal against both the judgement that it broke European Union monopoly rules and an eye-watering fine.

  • Men got us into this current economic mess, maybe women can get us out of it.

  • An entrepreneur's thoughts on a way of weaning motorists off their reliance on oil.

  • The industry that changed the world – the US automobile business – is in deep trouble. Peter Day finds out why.

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