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“In this superb book, Chelsea Follett takes the reader on a time-travel cruise through the great flash points of human activity to catch innovations that have transformed human lives.”

―from the foreword by MATT RIDLEY, author of The Rational Optimist, The Evolution of Everything, and How Innovation Works



Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is the story of the city. It is cities that have created and defined the modern world by acting as the sites of pivotal advances in culture, politics, science, technology, and more. There is no question that certain places, at certain times in history, have contributed disproportionately toward making the world a better place. This book tells the story of forty of those places.

In Centers of Progress: 40 Cities that Changed the World, Chelsea Follett examines a diverse group of cities, ranging from ancient Athens to Song-era Hangzhou. But some common themes stand out: most cities reach their creative peak during periods of peace; most centers of progress also thrive during times of social, intellectual, and economic freedom, as well as openness to intercultural exchange and trade; and centers of progress tend to be highly populated. Because, in every city, it is ultimately the people who live there who drive progress forward―if given the freedom to do so.

Identifying common factors―such as relative peace, freedom, and multitudes―among the places that have produced history's greatest achievements is one way to learn what causes progress. Change is a constant, but progress is not. Understanding what makes a place fertile ground for progress may help to sow the seeds of future innovations.

Moreover, their story is our story. City air provides the wind in the sails of the modern world. Come journey through these pages to some of history's greatest centers of progress.


Steven Pinker

"Some times and places seem almost magical in the way they incubate ideas and movements. In explaining the magic in this fascinating book, Chelsea Follett shines a light on the drivers of human progress."

author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Tyler Cowen

founder of

Marginal Revolution

"Chelsea Follett's Centers of Progress makes urban history interesting again, indeed fascinating. These 40 tales help to explain where modern life comes from and give a broader intellectual and historical tour of the world."

“Chelsea Follett has written a book telling a history of human ingenuity covering 12,000 years! We learn this astonishing epic by reading about the life—and sometimes the death—of 40 cities on five continents. There is a common thread linking these urban biographies: people of different cultures meeting in cities doted with a degree of intellectual freedom develop an ability to solve technical and social problems. And because cities communicate, their inventions slowly add up and soon spread across continents, benefiting humanity. Centers of Progress provides an optimistic, well-documented view of the world. We badly need this long-term perspective!”

Alain Bertaud

author of Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities

“Endlessly fascinating, wide-ranging, and provocative, Centers of Progress takes us on a tour of the most creative moments of human history. Chelsea Follett moves us around the globe and across millennia. From the invention of agriculture to the digital revolution, Follett shows us the many ways in which cities have freed the imagination and brought forth new ideas that improved our lives. An inspiring rebuttal to stories of decline, Follett demonstrates that whenever people were free to gather, interact, and innovate, progress followed.”

Jack A. Goldstone

author of Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History, 1500–1850

Johan Norberg

author of Open: The Story of Human Progress

“We shouldn't just study the past to avoid repeating mistakes; we should also go there to be inspired by remarkable episodes of creativity and progress. And Chelsea Follett is the perfect tour guide. Centers of Progress is a comprehensive history lesson packed with facts yet always an enjoyable and easily accessible read.”

“Cities have long been places that foster innovation and flourishing. They could just as well be called ‘labor markets,' ‘population clusters,' or ‘agglomerations' where people merge and, operating from market signals and personal need, produce stuff others find beneficial. Chelsea Follett's book Centers of Progress describes the historical role that cities played in such advancement. From medical innovations that sprang off the Nile River in the third millennium BC in Egypt to the defeat of ruinous ‘-isms' and rise of the 20th-century liberal order, urban centers made it happen. Underlying Follett's work is the case for fostering the market economies that will help cities continue this role in the future.”

Scott Beyer

author of Market Urbanism: A Vision for Free-Market Cities

Jason Crawford

“The best way to understand progress is to study history: the case studies of how it actually happened. Here are dozens of such stories―concise and readable―from all over the world, which is a reminder that progress can come from anywhere.”

founder of

The Roots of Progress

Art Diamond

author of Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

“Chelsea Follett guides us through 40 cities where innovations enabled humanity to progress to longer and better lives. We revisit beloved cities that are well-known to us from travel or reading, such as Athens, London, and New York. But we also learn of the achievements of exotic and underappreciated cities, such as Budj Bim, Nan Madol, and Chang'an. Many of Follett's cities were bastions of freedom in a landscape that was otherwise much less free. She reminds us why our beleaguered cities are worth saving.”

Michael J. Douma

co-editor of

What Is Classical

Liberal History?

“By looking at cities as the centers of progress, this book recasts world history as a developing set of ideas and technologies. This is a much welcome alternative to the approaches to the past that see nations, social classes, or institutions as the drivers and carriers of history. Follett reminds us that history is made by people and that when people congregate in cities, they become more innovative and contribute more to historical development. It is a positive story that everyone can learn from.”

Richard Florida

author of

The Rise of the

Creative Class

“Cities are our greatest invention. From ancient cities like Jericho and Uruk to Athens and Rome and onward to Vienna, Kyoto, Florence, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, and many more, Chelsea Follett shows how cities power human progress in technology, arts, and across the board. An absolute must read for mayors, urban leaders, businesspeople, and anyone concerned about the future of our cities, economy, and society.”

John Nye

author of War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689–1900

“The story of human progress in all its forms is the story of civilization's greatest achievements. So, what better way to teach about those accomplishments than through a focus on the cities that were usually there at the beginning? In Centers of Progress, Chelsea Follett elegantly and briskly goes through most of our greatest accomplishments from the beginnings of agriculture to medicine, trade, and currency and to big ideas and events like the foundations of liberal democracy, emancipation, suffrage, and the fall of Communism. And it ends, quite appropriately, with the digital revolution. To be read by all, from children to centenarians.”




CHELSEA FOLLETT is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty & Prosperity and the managing editor of Human​Progress​.org, a project of the Cato Institute that seeks to educate the public on the global improvements in well‐​being by providing free empirical data on long‐​term developments. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsweek, Forbes, The Hill, Business Insider, National Review, and the Washington Examiner. She was named to Forbes' 30 under 30 list for 2018 in the category of Law & Policy. 

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Explore the locations that have served as hubs for human progress and innovation throughout world history. Students will delve into the stories of significant cities and regions, examining their contributions in fields such as science, technology, arts, and governance, fostering a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of societies and the impact of key cultural and intellectual centers.



In this episode of Political Economy, Chelsea Follett previews her new book, Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World.


From Uruk to Florence to Tokyo, most civilizational advances have occurred in cities, where people come together to compete and exchange ideas.



In Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World, Chelsea Follett examines a diverse group of cities, ranging from ancient Athens to Song-era Hangzhou.


When we think of cultural invention, human flourishing, and technological innovation, we tend also to think of great cities. A look at 40 of them proves instructive as to what makes true progress possible.

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It is cities that have created and defined the modern world by acting as the sites of pivotal advances in culture, politics, science, technology, and more. 


October 2, 2023

4 - 5 PM EDT

F.A. Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute


John J. Miller is joined by Chelsea Follett to discuss her new book, Centers of Progress.


When we think of cultural invention, human flourishing, and technological innovation, we tend also to think of great cities. A look at 40 of them proves instructive as to what makes true progress possible. 


When our hunter gatherer ancestors settled in communities they were at their creative, innovative and productive best. Chelsea Follett features 40 cities where human development began.


Chelsea Follett discusses her book, Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World, on Sirius XM’s The David Webb Show guest hosted by Tim Young


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