The Future of New Things Under the Sun

It's good!

Hi everyone,

Happy to announce the next phase in the evolution of New Things Under the Sun: !

The mission of New Things Under the Sun (.com) is to convey, in an accessible way, “what academia knows* about innovation.” It’s a living literature review that synthesizes research about innovation and presents it in a format accessible to non-specialists.

(“Knows” has an asterisk because knowledge in academia is inherently contested and provisional, and because you’re only ever going to get a limited perspective on it from the website. Nonetheless - it’s useful stuff!) 

Up-to-date evidence

The core idea of the site is a large set of modular, dynamic, “claim” articles. These are essentially what you’ve been receiving in your inbox as a subscriber to the newsletter. Each of these articles tries to present evidence from a curated set of papers in service of a specific narrow claim. I view these articles as breaking down the kind of topic that would normally comprise a large literature review into small modular chunks. I’ve adapted nearly all of the newsletter back catalog to be claim articles for the site.

These articles are dynamic and updateable. One of the biggest problems I had with the substack newsletter was that after I wrote articles, new research related to the topic would come out, or I would learn I had missed something. I could go back and update the newsletters with new content, but only if I was willing to overwrite earlier versions. That didn’t seem like a good long-run solution. The website, in contrast, is built on the pubpub platform, which makes it easy to update articles while publicly archiving earlier versions.

Going forward, I expect a portion of my efforts will be spent keeping the existing articles relatively current by adding content related to new articles, or removing articles when they are superceded by new and better methods or data. As a subscriber to the newsletter, you’ll get emails when these updates are issued.

For an example of how this is going to work, you can check out the updated version of the substack post “How important are knowledge spillovers?” The original post covered three studies that used three different methods to argue knowledge spillovers are quite important, not just in theory, but also in practice. The updated version of this article adds a fourth and complementary study, Myers and Lanahan (2021). You can read the entire updated post here or jump straight to coverage of that new study here.

Providing wider context

While every claim article can stand alone and be read in its own right, I also want them to add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. The idea is that a big synthesis of academic literature is easier to digest in many smaller discrete chunks, in the same way it’s easy to binge eight 30-minute episodes of television, but it feels like an enormous undertaking to watch a four hour movie.

I’ve provided two ways of connecting up these individual claim articles into something bigger. First, every article either references or is referenced by another article on the site (usually both). At the bottom of each article, I’ve pulled together a list of the articles that are cited, or which cite the article, as well as thematically related ones. It’s my hope that this creates the opportunity to go down long rabbit holes if you’re so inclined (there are currently 39 claim articles that collectively add up to ~75,000 words).

Second, the website adds a second tier of article, which I’m calling “arguments.” These are kind of like traditional literature review articles, except that instead of discussing individual studies in a few sentences, they discuss individual claim articles in a few sentences. That lets them operate as efficient high level maps of the academic terrain.

Today the first such argument article is up, titled “How to accelerate technological progress.” It’s just 2200 words, but it briefly covers the content in 22 different claim articles, which are themselves about 2,000 words apiece. Another such article will be rolling out soon.

What’s next?

This project began as something I did in my spare time, until November 2021, when Emergent Ventures generously took a chance and gave me a grant that let me spend 25% of my work time on this project. Going forward, I am working with an organization that will provide funding for me to work on it closer to 50% of my time, while keeping the site free. I’ll have more to say on that when everything is finalized.

The substack newsletter will still come out roughly every two weeks or so and remains the best way to keep up to speed on what’s new. The main change is that it will now point you to new content on the website. Most of the time, I plan to work on writing new claim articles, which the newsletter will point you to, so in that sense things will remain the same. Sometimes though, the newsletter will instead point to updates of existing articles, or it will point to new argument articles, which map out the content on the site. I expect there’ll be a bit more of that in the short term, as I work through a backlog of updates that I put off doing until the site was up.

To close, I want to thank everyone who has subscribed to this newsletter, reached out to let me know they enjoy it, or publicly recommended the newsletter. The newsletter project began in November 2019 with about 100 followers, and has grown since then to 3,663 (and most posts get significantly more reads than even that).

I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do this semi-professionally, and that’s not something I take for granted. Thank you.

-Matt Clancy