Building on his national bestseller The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley chronicles the history of innovation, and how we need to change our thinking on the subject.
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 symptoms like Donald Trump and Brexit, it is innovation that will shape the twenty-first century. Yet innovation remains a mysterious process, poorly understood by policy makers and businessmen alike.
Matt Ridley argues that we need to see innovation as an incremental, bottom-up, fortuitous process that happens as a direct result of the human habit of exchange, rather than an orderly, top-down process developing according to a plan. Innovation is crucially different from invention, because it is the turning of inventions into things of practical and affordable use to people. It speeds up in some sectors and slows down in others. It is always a collective, collaborative phenomenon, involving trial and error, not a matter of lonely genius. It happens mainly in just a few parts of the world at any one time. It still cannot be modeled properly by economists, but it can easily be discouraged by politicians. Far from there being too much innovation, we may be on the brink of an innovation famine.
Ridley derives these and other lessons from the lively stories of scores of innovations, how they started and why they succeeded or failed. Some of the innovation stories he tells are about steam engines, jet engines, search engines, airships, coffee, potatoes, vaping, vaccines, cuisine, antibiotics, mosquito nets, turbines, propellers, fertilizer, zero, computers, dogs, farming, fire, genetic engineering, gene editing, container shipping, railways, cars, safety rules, wheeled suitcases, mobile phones, corrugated iron, powered flight, chlorinated water, toilets, vacuum cleaners, shale gas, the telegraph, radio, social media, block chain, the sharing economy, artificial intelligence, fake bomb detectors, phantom games consoles, fraudulent blood tests, hyperloop tubes, herbicides, copyright, and even life itself.
An Important Work That Should Shape Our Thinking
This is the third book I’ve read by Matt Ridley. Several years ago, I read “The Rational Optimist.” I’ve now read “The Evolution of Everything” and “How Innovation Works.”
A theme runs through all of them. Ridley, a zoologist by training and a peer of the British House of Lords, applies Darwin, not just to plants and animals, but to society.
Progress, he tells us, happens when ideas have sex. Like the random intermingling of genes from different lineages that produces a species better suited for survival, technologies combine to produce new technologies that advance the human race. As a result, we live longer, healthier and richer lives. Global poverty rates drop dramatically.
An eye-popping statistic: From 1960 to 2010, the amount of land needed to grow a given quantity of food fell by 65%. Do you remember Paul Ehrlich’s dire prediction from the 1960s that we would all starve to death by the 1980s because there wouldn’t be enough food? It happened because of innovation.
The human race differs from other creatures, Ridley tells us, because we trade one thing for another. Both parties are better off from the trade. That leads to the specialization of labor and limitless improvements in productivity.
In “Innovation,” he recounts the development of all sorts of innovations that have enriched us, from Edison and the lightbulb to the Wright brothers and the airplane, from the steam engine to the container ship.
And, the secret sauce is that it happens on its own, incrementally, often by previously unknown inventors and innovators, without central planning or government intervention. Progress is bottom up, not top down. In fact, government can get in the way. The development of nuclear energy has been smothered by regulation. Businesses can become so dominate that innovation can be killed by the “dead hand of corporate managerialism.”
He’s no fan of the European Union and its ban on genetically modified foods.
Progress is best nurtured in a free, democratic society, Ridley tells us. I had to read to the last page to get to the money quote. “Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity.”