This economist has a plan to fix capitalism. It’s time we all listened

Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated that the real driver of innovation isn’t lone geniuses but state investment. Now she’s working with the UK government, EU and UN to apply her moonshot approach to the world’s biggest challenges

The idea that made Mariana Mazzucato one of the most influential economists in the world came to her in early 2011. It had been three years since the financial crisis of 2008 and, in the UK, the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had chosen to pursue a fiscal policy of austerity that was forcing councils to cut back public services and leading to a rise of homelessness and crime. “In my neighbourhood after-school clubs, youth centres, public libraries, policing and mental health budgets were all cut, affecting the most vulnerable people in society,» she recalls. «It was very sad.”

What particularly infuriated Mazzucato was the prevailing narrative that such cuts were necessary to boost competitiveness and innovation. In March 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech excoriating civil servants working in government, labelling them “enemies of enterprise”. Later that year, in November, he visited the Truman Brewery in east London to announce his plans for a new technology cluster called Tech City. “They were hyping up entrepreneurs and dismissing everyone else,” Mazzucato says. “There was this belief that we didn’t have European Googles and Facebooks because we didn’t subscribe to Silicon Valley’s free market approach. It was just ideology: there was no free market in Silicon Valley.”

It was then that Mazzucato, an Italian-American economist who had spent decades researching the economics of innovation and the high tech industry, decided to look deeper into the early history of some of the world’s most innovative companies. The development of Google’s search algorithm, for instance, had been supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, a US public grant-awarding body. Electric car company Tesla initially struggled to secure investment until it received a $465 million (£380 million) loan from the US Department of Energy. In fact, three companies founded by Elon Musk — Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX — had jointly benefited from nearly $4.9 billion (£3.9bn) in public support of various kinds. Many other well-known US startups had been funded by the Small Business Innovation Research programme, a public venture capital fund. “It wasn’t just early research, it was also applied research, early stage finance, strategic procurement,” she says. “The more I looked, the more I realised: state investment is everywhere.”

Mazzucato included her findings in a 150-page pamphlet she submitted to UK policy think tank Demos. It was distributed to thousands of policymakers, and received coverage in daily newspapers. “It was obvious that it had touched a nerve,” she says. “The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go straight to the core of the myths about innovation.” She decided to dissect the product that symbolised Silicon Valley’s engineering prowess: the iPhone.

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