We can learn a lot about improving the world in the 21st century from an icon of the industrial era: the steam engine.
Over the holidays I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, a brilliant chronicle by William Rosen of the many innovations it took to harness steam power. Among the most important were a new way to measure the energy output of engines and a micrometer dubbed the "Lord Chancellor," able to gauge tiny distances.
Such measuring tools, Rosen writes, allowed inventors to see if their incremental design changes led to the improvements-higher-quality parts, better performance, and less coal consumption-needed to build better engines. Innovations in steam power demonstrate a larger lesson: Without feedback from precise measurement, Rosen writes, invention is "doomed to be rare and erratic." With it, invention becomes "commonplace."
Of course, the work of our foundation is a world away from the making of steam engines. But in the past year I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal-in a feedback loop similar to the one Rosen describes. This may seem pretty basic, but it is amazing to me how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.
I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.
In previous annual letters, I've focused a lot on the power of innovation to reduce hunger, poverty, and disease. But any innovation-whether it's a new vaccine or an improved seed-can't have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it. That's why in this year's letter I discuss how innovations in measurement are critical to finding new, effective ways to deliver these tools and services to the clinics, family farms, and classrooms that need them.
Our foundation is supporting these efforts, but we and others need to do more. Given how tight budgets are around the world, governments are rightfully demanding effectiveness in the programs they pay for. To address these demands, we need better measurement tools to determine which approaches work and which do not.
In this letter I'll highlight strong examples I've seen in the past year of how measurement is making a difference.
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