How Innovation Works: Book Review
This month we are reviewing the book How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley.
I’ve had this book on my shelf literally for almost 2 years now. I purchased it at the beginning of the pandemic and have been meaning to get to it for a while. And I’m glad I finally did. It has so many elements that I love—a host of stories of innovation from numerous industries, advice for better innovation, and cautionary tales of what can go wrong.
This isn’t a deep dive into any specific area. Rather, it is a rapid flight over the vast landscape of innovation that marks our world—from transportation to public health to communication. From prehistory to modern day. Some of the stories I’m familiar with from other books, others I need to dive deeper into. But that is what I found most useful about this book: it offers a magnificent vista of innovation that the reader can explore deeper (and I intend to).
It also offers insights from history for those of us who want to create modern innovation. If you are reading this, that is probably you.
Innovation is a difficult thing, and the elements of innovation are critical. With them, you may be able to innovate. Without them, you surely will not.
So let’s dive into some key takeaways.
Matt Ridley starts How Innovation Works with several definitions of innovation and why it is so important.
Innovation may be one of the most overused words in our corporate lexicon today, but it also may be one of the least understood ideas.
The book then proceeds to explore innovation across numerous industries, including energy, public health, transport, low-technology, communication & computing, and prehistoric inventions. It then turns its attention to what innovation needs to flourish, and also what it takes to kill innovation in companies and communities, and what we can do about it. It ends with some predictions (a dangerous thing, the author acknowledges) about the future of innovation.
The author is quick to point out that not every innovation can be included in a single book, and many are left out:
I cannot hope to document every important innovation. I have omitted some very important and well-known ones for no particular reason…I have left out most innovation in art, music and literature.
Not surprisingly, given the breadth of the topic and the range it needs to cover, many innovations are not in the text. But the examples included do an excellent job highlighting many of the key points and I’d love to follow these up with additional innovations in some of the above categories and others.
What is Innovation
Innovation is the main event of the modern age, the reason we experience both dramatic improvements in our living standards and unsettling changes in our society. Forget short-term events that dominate the news, it is innovation that explains our times and will itself shape the twenty-first century. Yet innovation remains a mysterious process, poorly understood by policy makers and businesspeople alike.
Early in the book, Ridley compares innovation to the infinite improbability drive from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A way to harness energy to create ever more improbable and useful things that improve our lives.
Another definition from the book:
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps defines an innovation as ‘a new method or new product that becomes a new practice somewhere in the world’.
I wrote about the definition of innovation as well last year. I defined it like this: Innovation is creating something new, better, and valuable. You can check out that post below. (I guess something about May has me thinking about innovation…)
Innovation Around Us
The book is full of examples and stories of innovation. We can’t cover all of them here, so I’ll pull out a few of my favorite examples.
The Invention of the Dog
My son asked me if I knew anything interesting just the other night, so this was the anecdote that I pulled out as I was tucking him in. It got him asking questions about breeding, genetic variation over time, and how differences occur in species. So a good story and a good topic.
Long before farming was invented, human beings made a crucial innovation that transformed their fortunes: the dog. It was the first animal to be domesticated and become an ecological companion of people all over the world.
Dogs were likely domesticated 20,000 to 40,000 years ago somewhere in Eurasia. And it was probably an innovation that benefited dogs and humans. The wolves that were most amenable to humans started hanging around them, and humans gained a hunting companion and protector.
We have replicated this idea of selection in other experiments. Dmitri Belyaev began selecting silver foxes in Siberia for docile traits and bred the most docile offspring for many generations (nearly half a century) until he ended up with tame foxes. He and his team had selected for genetic mutations that also showed up in other ways, but it’s interesting to see how the innovation of domestication could have happened with dogs back then and again today.
Lady Mary’s Dangerous Obsession
The history of inoculation and vaccines is fascinating to me. It is one of the most amazing innovations and has involved so many people throughout history. It is difficult to definitively give credit to one person or group (as is the case with most innovations), but Lady Mary Pierrepoint is one of the early innovators.
She was learned, eloquent, witty, and well-loved in social circles in the 1700s. But she contracted smallpox, and that is what made her reputation. While her husband was an ambassador in Constantinople, she witnessed inoculation. And upon returning to London, she became a vocal champion of it, inoculating her two children against the disease. The practice gradually attracted more practitioners as people recognized the benefits.
Inoculation eventually was replaced with the safer practice of vaccination (using cowpox rather than smallpox), but without innovators at each step, we would not make progress.
Elements of Innovation
In addition to the stories throughout the book, we can also learn a number of lessons on how innovation works.
The author offers 10 essential elements for innovation in order for it to thrive and for us to better understand its mechanics. I’ll give a few of what I consider the most important here (you’ll have to check out the rest in the book).
Innovation is Gradual
Innovation often feels sudden until you look more closely at it.
The Wright brothers went from not flying to flying, right? Wasn’t it a breakthrough moment when they got their first airplane airborne? Not exactly. It came after years of experimenting. And their experiments were built on the back of earlier aviation experimenters and thinkers. So this was decades or even centuries in the making.
As the story about inoculation and vaccination above shows, it was also a gradual process. It was being practiced in other countries, then was eventually brought west and adopted more broadly. From there, other innovators used other forms of diseases to create immunity. And from there, we continued to innovate on the types of diseases we could create vaccines for. The vaccines we enjoy today are hundreds of years’ worth of innovation.
Innovation is often Serendipitous
I wrote about serendipity and invention/innovation previously, and it is an important element of the innovative process.
The founders of Instagram were trying to make a gaming app. The founders of Twitter were trying to invent a way for people to find podcasts. At Dupont in 1938, Roy Plunket invented Teflon entirely by accident.
So many paths to significant innovations aren’t the ones we expect. It takes a certain amount of luck to create amazing innovations, which is why the ability to experiment and fail is so important.
Innovation is a Team Sport
The myth of the lonely inventor, the solitary genius, is hard to shake. Innovation always requires collaboration and sharing, as exemplified by the fact that even the simplest object or process is beyond the capacity of any one human being to understand…The same is true for innovation.
The example is that of a pencil. It seems relatively simple, but no one on their own could make a pencil from scratch. It is simply too complicated. Likewise, innovation always requires more than one person. It is a group effort.
Innovators always build on the work of others, and often rely on contemporaries with skills they may not have:
One person may make a technological breakthrough, another work out how to manufacture it and a third how to make it cheap enough to catch on. All are part of the innovation process and none of them knows how to achieve the whole innovation.
As the book says, “Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity.”
Innovation is the reason why life continues to improve so incredibly fast and why we can expect and hope that our lives will continue to improve. It may not always be linear, but doing more, creating more, and making it more valuable is key to innovation. We need to ensure that we cultivate the right environments for innovation to thrive. We can’t dictate the success of any specific innovation, but we can ensure that we create space in our work, our companies, our communities and our governments to allow innovation to create magic.
*Note: I’ve been thinking hard about our newsletter here, and how to continue to make it valuable for everyone. I’ll be experimenting with some new formats going forward, and probably some more frequent updates. So expect to see some small changes over the coming weeks (in the spirit of experimentation).