From the fight against polio to fixing education, what’s missing is often good measurement and a commitment to follow the data. We can do better. We have the tools at hand.
We can learn a lot about improving the 21st-century world from an icon of the industrial era: the steam engine.
Harnessing steam power required many innovations, as William Rosen chronicles in the book “The Most Powerful Idea in the World.” Among the most important were a new way to measure the energy output of engines and a micrometer dubbed the “Lord Chancellor” that could gauge tiny distances.
Such measuring tools, Mr. Rosen writes, allowed inventors to see if their incremental design changes led to the improvements—such as higher power and less coal consumption—needed to build better engines. There’s a larger lesson here: Without feedback from precise measurement, Mr. Rosen writes, invention is “doomed to be rare and erratic.” With it, invention becomes “commonplace.”