How Innovation Works: A review by Bob Morris

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom
Matt Ridley
Harper (May 2020)

“Innovation offers the carrot of spectacular reward or the stick of destitution.”  Joseph Schumpeter

The material in some books is even more relevant — and more valuable — now than it was when first published. For example….

In the Introduction to his brilliant book, Matt Ridley cites a concept introduced by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It helps Ridley to recognize how man achieves what may seem improbable by expending or converting energy, “powered by a fictional ‘infinite improbability drive.’ Yet a near-infinite improbability drive does indeed exist, but here on Planet Earth, in the shape of the process of innovation.”

Ridley goes on to explain, “Innovations come in many forms, but one thing they all have in common, and which they share with biological innovations created by evolution, is that they are enhanced forms of improbability.” He thoroughly explains how and why Schumpeter’s assertion — with rare exception — is true. He also has much of great value to say about resistance to innovative thinking. “Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of innovation is how unpopular it is, for all the lip service we pay to it.”

Human nature seems to prefer a known devil to an unknown devil. Long ago, I realized that most people do not fear change; they fear what is unfamiliar. James O’Toole suggests that the strongest resistance to change tends to be cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s another candidate from J.B.S. Haldane: “There is no great invention, from fire to flying, that has not been hailed as an insult to some god.”

At one point, Ridley observes, “The twentieth century saw only one innovative source of energy on any scale: nuclear power. (Wind and solar, though much improved and with a promising future, still supply less than 2 per cent of global energy.) In terms of its energy density, nuclear is without equal: an object the size of a suitcase, suitably plumbed in, can power a town or an aircraft carrier almost indefinitely. The development of civil nuclear power was a triumph of applied science, the trail leading from the discovery of nuclear fission and the chain reaction through the Manhattan Project’s conversion of a theory into a bomb, to the gradual engineering of a controlled nuclear reaction and its application to boiling water.”

These are among the other passages in Chapters 1-7 of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ridley’s coverage:

o What Watt wrought (Pages 24-26)
o Thomas Edison and the invention business (26-31)
o Nuclear power and the phenomenon of disinnovation (36-41)
o Lady Mary’s dangerous obsession (50-55)
o Fleming’s (64-69)

o The locomotive and its line (80-87)
o The Wright stuff (95-103)
o How fertilizer fed the world (118-129)
o Insect nemesis (136-141)
o When numbers were new (149-154)

o Crinkly tin conquers the Empire (159-162)
o The container that changed trade (162-170)
o The first death of distance (178-183)
o The miracle of wireless (183-188)
o Who invented the computer? (189-196)

o The ever-shrinking transistor (196-204)
o Machines that learn (211-215)
o The first farmers (216-222)
o The feast made possible by fire (234-137)
o The ultimate innovation: life itself (237-239)

In the subsequent five chapters, Ridley examines “Innovation’s essentials,” “The economics of innovation,” “Fakes, frauds, fads, and failures,” “Resistance to innovation,” and “An innovation famine.”

Obviously, this is neither the first nor will it be the last book that concentrates on one or more dimensions of innovation. However, none of them will surpass what Matt Ridley achieves in How Innovation Works in terms of scope and depth of interconnected, indeed interdependent coverage.

Most people will agree with him that innovation is “the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity.” And I share his hope that our improbability drive can somehow overcome the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that seem so much greater now than they were at any prior time I can recall.

I congratulate him on a brilliant achievement. Bravo!


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