How Innovation Works | Matt Ridley

Summary of: How Innovation Works: Serendipity, Energy and the Saving of Time
By: Matt Ridley


Embark on a journey through the complexities of innovation with Matt Ridley’s insightful book, ‘How Innovation Works: Serendipity, Energy and the Saving of Time’. Discover how innovation is influenced by collaboration, background, and context while challenging the conventional notion that innovation is solely the work of individual geniuses. Traverse through the realms of medicine, transportation, and communication to see how innovations emerge from a blend of serendipity, trial and error, and adaptation. Uncover the crucial role that ideas and intangible concepts have played in shaping historical innovations and the challenges and resistance that many innovations have faced.

Collaborative Innovation

The Industrial Revolution’s atmospheric steam engine was not invented by a single person. Instead, Denis Papin, Thomas Savery, and Thomas Newcomen all produced their working models around 1700. None of them can claim full credit since the basic ideas behind the device were already being discussed by the scientific community. Each inventor refined their thinking by exchanging ideas with others, and their backgrounds and influences contributed to their inventions. This principle applies to all innovation – it is a complex and collaborative process that happens in response to ideas and technologies circulating at the time.

The Risk and Reward of Medical Innovations

Medical innovations have resulted from piecemeal development over time through random chance and trial and error, but they have also come with high risks and rewards. These innovations have saved countless lives and led to the discovery of modern-day vaccines. Engraftment, an 18th-century technique, made people immune to smallpox by rubbing infected pus into their wound. Similarly, Dr. John Leal successfully added chloride of lime to Jersey City’s water supply in the early 20th century to cure the outbreaks of cholera and other diseases. The experimentation with electronic cigarettes, or vaping, has the potential to save lives as a means of quitting smoking, but we do not yet fully understand its health effects, leading to controversy in different countries. Therefore, medical innovations require careful consideration of their risks and rewards.

The Evolution of Travel Innovation

The history of travel innovation shows that gradual improvements lead to revolutionary breakthroughs. In the early 1800s, inventors sought to replace horses with steam-powered locomotives. Numerous prototypes were created, but only a few, such as Robert Stephenson’s Rocket, succeeded in improving speed, safety, and reliability, leading to the railway boom. The same gradual improvement process has been in play for the automobiles we know today. From the earliest ancestor of the engine built by Franco-Swiss artillery officer Isaac de Rivaz, numerous inventors like Nikolau Otto and Karl Benz continued to refine its design. It was Henry Ford’s efficient assembly-line manufacturing process that finally made the automobile affordable and accessible. The history of travel innovation reminds us that breakthroughs take time, patience, and a willingness to continually improve on what has come before.

Innovations Beyond Inventions

The evolution of ideas

Potatoes and Arabic numerals may seem to have little in common, but they share a fascinating history of innovation. The potato, a nutrient-rich crop, was first cultivated in the Andes Mountains and took years to gain acceptance in Europe despite being a staple food today. On the other hand, the Arabic numeral system, which has revolutionized mathematics, was introduced by Indian scholars in 500 AD and found its way to Europe centuries later thanks to Fibonacci. Both innovations show that progress doesn’t always mean new tangible objects but can also be intangible ideas that change how we approach the world. Adopting the positional Arabic number system enabled Europe to advance in trade and commerce and allowed mathematical calculations that were impossible earlier. Often overlooked, such innovations played a significant role in scientific discovery and progress.

The Revolution of Communication Technology

The invention of electronic communication technology, starting with the telegraph in 1843, transformed the world by connecting distant people and accelerating information flow. The development of the telephone, wireless radio, and computer chips at increasingly smaller sizes drove rapid innovation, and the internet connecting all computers revolutionized sharing information. As a result, influential companies now control communication technology, changing the political landscape. The message is clear: our desire to communicate drives technological advancement.

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