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Global Economics Gets a Facelift With The Atlas of Economic Complexity

An atlas unlike any you've ever seen.

Economists Ricardo Hausmann and César Hidalgo released their Atlas of Economic Complexity at the Harvard Center for International Development on Thursday. The 300-plus page atlas is unlike any you’ve seen before—it doesn’t inform readers where they are geographically, and it won’t be any help when charting pan-continental adventures. But from an economic perspective, the atlas will tell readers where their countries rank in terms of productivity—and, most astonishingly, where it will be in 10 years.

It’s not a crystal ball, but it could very well be a map for global investment over the next decade. Plus, it sure is pretty to look at.


The atlas starts with the idea that the wealth and potential of nations is derived from productive knowledge. To maximize collective knowledge, a nation needs to connect its individual citizens, each of whom can benefit the whole. The more complex and interconnected a nation, the greater its economic productivity and potential. The atlas visualizes the economic complexity of 128 countries and foresees the expected GDP growth for each between 2009 and 2020, using what Hausmann and Hidalgo call the Index of Economic Complexity. Producing a wide variety of goods boosts a nation's rank on the ECI because it gives the country the potential to make even more (and more advanced) products. For example, a country that manufactures lithium batteries can soon expand into making computers, cell phones, or electric cars.

By this measure, Uganda has the most potential of any country in the world, followed by Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. The United States ranks at 88, comfortably mid-pack, but well-behind rival China at 20. This makes sense—the countries with the most potential are often ones that are starting from near the bottom in current GDP.

By using vibrant visualizations, Haussman hopes that the atlas will draw in investors, economists, governments, corporations, and the average reader. Each nation’s connectivity can be visualized on a complex and colorful web that links areas of production. The potential of the atlas lies in these connections: In just one glance, a reader can see the current areas of production and those within reach, thus understanding where potential investments or development efforts should focus.

All told, the atlas has more colors than that 20-year-old one you have sitting under a stack of archived issues of National Geographic, and the views of the world it presents is just as vibrant. The book is slated for a future release in print, but if you’re looking a new economic view of the world, visit the online visualizer.

All images courtesy of Atlas.media.mit.edu

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