An exploration of ‘How Innovation Works’

From The Washington Post:

Innovation, Matt Ridley tells us at the start of his new treatise on the subject, “is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood.” Even as it functions as a powerful engine of prosperity — the accelerant of human progress — innovation remains the “great puzzle” that baffles technologists, economists and social scientists alike. In many respects, Ridley is on to something. After decades of careful study, we’re still not entirely sure about innovation’s causes or how it can best be nurtured. Is innovation dependent on a lone genius, or is it more a product of grinding teamwork? Does it occur like a thunderclap, or does it take years or even decades to coalesce? Is it usually situated in cities, or in well-equipped labs in office parks?

We can’t even agree on its definition. Generally speaking, an innovation is more than an idea and more than an invention. Yet beyond that, things get confusing. We live in a moment when we’re barraged by new stuff every day — new phones, new foods, new surgical techniques. In the pandemic, we’re confronted, too, with new medical tests and pharmaceutical treatments. But which of these are true innovations and which are novel variations on old products? And while we’re at this game, is innovation limited to just technology, or might we include new additions to our culture, like a radical work of literature, art or film?

Unfortunately, no one happens to be policing the innovation space to say what it is and is not. Mostly we have to allow for judgment calls and an open mind. As an occasional writer on the subject, I tend to define innovation simply, but also flexibly: a new product or process that has both impact and scale. Usually, too, an innovation is something that helps us do something we already do, but in a way that’s better or cheaper. Artificial light is an excellent case study. Over time we’ve moved from candles, to whale oil and kerosene lamps, to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, and now to LEDs. Or, as another example, we might look to one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process to make synthetic fertilizer, as a leap that changed the potential of agricultural production. On the other hand, we can regard the Juicero press — a recent Silicon Valley-backed idea that promised to “disrupt” the juice market and burned up more than $100 million in the process — as a fake or failed innovation. And still, this leaves us plenty of room for disagreement about what falls between these extremes and why.

Ridley enters into this messy arena with the intent of organizing the intellectual clutter. The first half of his book, “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom,” takes us on a tour through some highlights in the history of innovation. We visit with the early developers of the steam engine, witness the events leading to the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and hear about the industrialization of the Haber-Bosch fertilizer process. There are likewise forays back to the early days of automobiles and computing, the development of smallpox vaccines and clean drinking water, and stories that trace the origins of the Green Revolution in agriculture, which alleviated famine for more than 1 billion people. For dedicated science readers, Ridley’s lessons may have a glancing and derivative feel. He knits together stories many of us have probably heard before — say, through the renditions of writers like Steven Johnson, Charles Mann or Walter Isaacson — but somehow misses the opportunity to enliven these sketches with a sense of wonder and surprise. More seriously, he skirts the opportunity to footnote his summarizations, leaving only a skeletal guide to sources in his back pages.

What becomes clear, though, is that Ridley is focused less on exploring the pageant of history than on fashioning a new belief system. I don’t necessarily mean this as a critique; in fact, the second half of his book — where he looks closely, chapter by chapter, at the factors that shaped the innovations he’s spent his first 200 pages describing — is more polemical in its approach but often more engaging, even as one might disagree with a narrative direction that arises from what I would characterize as the libertarian right. 

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

May heaven protect the unsuspecting Washington Post reader from any political attitudes not consistent with the paper’s editorial page.

3 thoughts on “An exploration of ‘How Innovation Works’”

    • Musk doesn’t.
      He just go on asking his engineers to blow up more fuel tanks until he finds a design that holds double the needed pressure. (Give or take.)
      And then he’ll crash a few prototypes until they figure out the best configuration for a skydiving spaceship. And he just might be landing on tbe moon before Boeing’s orbital capsule makes it to the ISS.
      True innovators don’t worry about how thibgs are supposed to be done; they just go and figure out how to do it.
      Nike got that much right.

  1. If you want to read about a real innovator, consider
    The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber Hardcover by David J. Gerber https://www.amazon.com/dp/0300123507

    Disclaimer: although it’s on my list, but I haven’t read it yet. I do, however, use Gerber files every time I get a printed circuit board made.

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