Shall We Care About Innovation?

The final post of a #ReadWithMe series on Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works


If Matt Ridley is right, and “most innovation consists of the non-random retention of variations in design”, shall we really care about innovation? If innovation comes out of a largely random process, how can we control, plan, help it?

There is a substantial industry of “fostering innovation”, both in government and its advisors and private consultants and private managers, too. They tend to frame innovation as something which is in the hands of producers, of makers. Producers, makers, inventors are certainly a big part of it: but so are customers, users who produce feedback and help in fine tuning ideas and applications. In other words, it is a mistake to consider innovation as the output of a process of “intelligent design”: it comes out of a process of selection, in which the contrivances of designers survive not because they are“good” or “ambitious” or “radical” but because they proved to be “useful”.


Failure in designing and fostering innovation is proved by the fact, Ridley argues, we are closer to an innovation famine than to an innovation plenty. Peter Thiel popularized the idea that we are very innovative in bits, not so much so with atoms. Ridley agrees. In recent years we achieved momentous changes in information technology, not so much elsewhere.

“My grandparents had the opposite experience from what my generation has seen: big changes in transport and few in communication. Born before the motor car or the aeroplane, they lived to see supersonic planes in the sky, wars fought by helicopter and men on the moon.”


Ridley does not blame the complacency and stagnation only on the private sector. “Multinationals have absorbed the mentality of planners, rather than entrepreneurs”. One common theme in his book is the idea that innovation tends to start small, and is often pursued by smaller companies, by outsiders. “Big companies are bad at innovating, because they are too bureaucratic”.


In its essence, Ridley believes there is a tinkering, artisanal element in innovation. But he also maintains that successful innovation requires, on the part of the producer, an agility and flexibility which are often absent in bigger organizations.


This puts him literally at the opposite pole from some of the conventional wisdom on the matter. Lots of people think innovation needs big money, great corporate structures or great government structures also in order to administer competitive bids and somehow “foster” private entrepreneurship, and plenty of capital to endure if an idea is not immediately profitable.


What’s the key difference, between this vision and Ridley’s? I would answer with a word: “directionality”. Ridley believes innovation “happens”. Others believe the course of development can be shaped by decisive action. You need somebody in charge, to “direct” efforts towards a certain goal. Ridley would respond that this way you are likely to lose at least as many opportunities as you purportedly gain.


How Innovation Works is a refreshing read. It is a book about innovation as we knew it, not as we wished it. Of course the future can always be different from the past, yet perhaps it is worth considering the past and its lessons, if we can spot them.


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Who Invented the Computer?

Part 7 of a #ReadWithMe series on Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works


It looks like a question easy enough to answer. It is not.

“The origination of the computer is as mysterious and confusing as that of far more ancient and uncertain innovations. There is nobody who deserves the accolade of the inventor of the computer. There is instead a regiment of people who made crucial contributions to a process that was so incremental and gradual, cross-fertilized and networked, that there is no moment or place where it can be argued that the computer came into existence”.


For Matt Ridley, four are the features of the computer which make it different from a calculator: it must be digital, electronic, programmable, and capable of carrying out whatever logical task, at least in principle. Walter Isaacson finds the turning point in the ENIAC, which begun operations in 1945 at the University of Pennsylvania. Ridley doesn’t agree: a better candidate would be Colussus, the computer built in Britain during World War II to crack the German codes. Who should take the credit then? “The construction was led largely by an engineer named Tommy Flowers, a pioneer of using vacuum tubes in complex telephone circuits, and his boss was the mathematician Max Newman, but they consulted Alan Turing”.


Ridley’s chapter on the origin of the computer is a delight. He goes back, up to Charles Babbage, to prove that ENIAC (and for that matter) the modern computer was not “so much invented as evolved through the combination and adaptation of precursor ideas and machines”.


Writes Ridley “the deeper you look, the less likely you are to find a moment of sudden breakthroughs, rather than a series of small incremental steps”. We tend to think differently because, as I mentioned earlier, we tend to search for visible hands, for clear moments of changes, for Innovator with a capital “i”. What escapes this picture is how much innovation is a matter related with feedback mechanisms. In a sense, I think this is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Ridley’s book: he uses plenty of interesting stories of innovators, but he never gets tired of explaining that their brilliant undertakings need to be received by consumers – and so sometimes they were adapted, used in different contexts, and became useful in a previously unpromising and unforeseen circumstances. In this sense, “innovation is the child of freedom”, Ridley explains, “because it is a free, creative attempt to satisfy freely expressed human designs”.


Read the previous posts in this series here.


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Who Invented the Dog?

6th in a #ReadWithMe series.

When you look at your dog, you seldom thing it is “a crucial innovation”. Yet dogs were. We have difficulties even conceiving that somebody, at a certain point, thought about domesticating them, as we are so used to having them on our side. Yet somebody, at some point, did.


The domestication of dogs happened between 20,000 and 40,00 years ago.

“The DNA from a wolf that died 35,000 years ago in northern Siberia … hinted that by then wolves were separate from dogs. Thus well before the last glacial maximum, but during a much colder period than today, people living on the Eurasian mainline somehow made friends with wild wolves and turned them into useful tools. Or was it the other way around?”


It is likely, writes Matt Ridley, “that the domestication began with wolves tentatively hanging around human camps to try to scavenge leftover carcasses. The bolder ones risked being speared, but got more food; gradually boldness in the presence of people became commoner in one group of wolves till people saw the advantage of having semi-tame wolves hanging around”.


Ridley knows that “it is stretching it to call domestication genetics an innovation”, particularly when the view widens to include the way in which we human beings domesticated: we are dogs to our wolves ancestors. Though it is not clear which genes accomplished the result, some kind of selection took place, changing us profoundly, in a way fitter to a far more gentle, less violent and rumbustious life.


In closing his chapter on the invention of the dog, Ridley makes one of the key points of his book in a very clear way: “Innovation is a lot less directed and planned, even today, than we tend to think. Most innovation consists of the non-random retention of variations in design”.



Read my previous posts here.


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Why Matt Ridley Writes on Innovation

First in a #ReadWithMe Series


Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works is a remarkable book. It is the third book in a row that Ridley, better known as a scientific journalist and, indeed, one of those rare people who makes highly complex scientific arguments understandable to the average educated reader, devoted to the _economic_ and _social_ realm. The first was The Rational Optimist, followed by The Evolution of Everything.

The book is masterful in two different ways. It is, of course, insightful. But it is also a pleasure to read. As a good journalist, Ridley knows that the human brain is a “stories processor” and not an “argument processor”. He showers the reader with anecdotes and stories, which make his points more cogent and clearer.

I will highlight some points that Ridley makes very effectively in a series of posts. This is the first.


Why did Ridley choose to devote a book to innovation? Because, he maintains, “innovation is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood. It is the reason most people today live lives of prosperity and wisdom compared with their ancestors, the overwhelming cause of the great enrichment of the past few centuries, the simple explanation of why the incidence of extreme poverty is in global freewill fort the first time in history: from 50 per cent of the world population to 9 per cent in my lifetime”.

So, Ridley is perfectly attuned to Deirdre McCloskey’s understanding of innovation as what is a truly peculiar of modern economies: so not “capitalism” (in the sense of the accumulation of capital being the primary force behind betterment) but “innovism” (ideas breeding the modern world).


Why is innovation not properly understood? “The surprising truth”, he writes, “is that nobody really knows why innovation happens and how it happens, let alone when and where it will happen next”. This is an unbearable thought and a very hard sell, both for the economist who consults with the government on how to foster innovation in the economy and for the corporate executive who boasts about the future achievements of his company.

One of the problems is that “innovation is nearly always a gradual, not a sudden thing.” Yet Ridley argues that it is seldom understood as such. People like to focus on great breakthroughs and their makers, on their stories. Ridley does his fair share of that, too, but always highlighting how great innovators actually built on what other great innovators did before them. “It is all too easy and all too tempting for whoever makes a breakthrough to magnify its importance, forget about rivals and predecessors, and ignore successors who make the breakthrough into a practical proposition”.


So How Innovation Works is also a book on how innovation doesn’t work: through eureka moments (well, sometimes they happen too) irrespective of culture and institutions.


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