Academic Research

The Growth Lab’s research aims to uncover the mechanisms behind economic growth. We approach this challenge from the perspective that economic development involves not just producing more of the same, but also upgrading the composition of what a place produces. For economies to grow, they must become more complex.

How do economies become more complex? We approach this question with a wide range of research that falls into roughly three categories – economic transformation, knowledge and technology diffusion, and the coordination of knowhow.

scrabble tiles spell economic growthThe logic behind the Growth Lab's model of economic growth is comparable to Scrabble.

Economic Transformation

Economic transformation is the process by which the structure of an economy changes. Different goods or services require different capabilities for production; the capabilities needed to manufacture a car, for example, differ from those needed to run a hospital. The output of countries, cities, firms, and individuals in turn can be upgraded by acquiring new capabilities, whether by building new institutional arrangements and infrastructure or by developing new corporate routines or skills. In this area of research we examine these processes, studying how countries change their export baskets, how cities develop new industries, how firms diversify, and how individuals move along their careers.

Diffusion of Knowledge and Technology

An impediment to economic development is that the knowledge to implement technologies does not move easily from place to place. As a consequence, many of the poorest parts of the world work with outdated technologies. One reason for this is that a crucial component of knowledge is deeply embedded in the skills of people and the routines of organizations. Thus, moving knowledge often requires moving skilled individuals and competent teams. To better understand this process we study the movement of people and firms, shedding light on the role of migration, foreign direct investment, and business travel in economic development.

Coordination of Knowhow

The world continues to add to the global stock of knowledge, but the cognitive capacity of individuals to absorb and use knowledge is limited. In response, societies have long divided knowledge across an expanding array of experts. The challenge they now face is to coordinate these individuals into teams that, together, encompass all of the knowhow needed to produce complex goods and services in modern economies. To understand this challenge, we study factors that affect the coordination of knowhow, including the skill-composition of jobs, the formation of teams, global value chains, the role of cities as places where collective know-how is coordinated, and the way changing institutions and technologies create new ways for individuals to collaborate.

The Scrabble Logic

We often think of the logic of economic development using an analogy to the game of Scrabble. Like players in Scrabble, economies possess a set of capabilities – letters – that they can use to produce products – words. Different products require different letters. Accordingly, economic development involves finding out which products can be produced with a place’s current capabilities – what words it can write with the letters it currently has. It also involves finding out how new letters can be acquired. This model of the world has deep consequences, some of which are described in the Atlas of Economic Complexity, the urban scaling theory, and the network structure of economic output, and understanding other consequences drives much of our research agenda.

The Scrabble logic plays out on different scales: Countries export a certain mix of products, regions and cities host a variety of industries, firms are active on different markets, and people have a range of skills that enable them to work in specific jobs. This is one reason why our research spans across many different fields, such as international trade, economic geography, strategic management, labor economics and migration and uses a variety of analytical approaches, such as econometrics and economic modeling, computer science, complexity sciences and network analysis.

Understanding how economies develop involves questions that are far more complex than what a single researcher or field can address. Our research draws on multiple disciplines, bringing together researchers in physics, mathematics, economics, economic geography, computer science, engineering, and other fields to address two age-old challenges: Why are some places so much richer than others? How can poorer places move up the ladder of development more quickly?


The Growth Lab accepts applications on a rolling basis for Pre or Postdoctoral Fellows who are interested in conducting research in the areas of economic development, growth, macroeconomics, and trade as part of the Growth Lab. These fellowships are non-stipendiary. Candidates must have own source of funding. Learn more about our process.

In the video below, Research Director Frank Neffke shares insights into the Growth Lab's research agenda.