Beyond Inspired Flashes
A bestselling science reporter explores breakthroughs from fire to nuclear power—and the political structures that stifle them.
Review by Robin Tatu
How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom
By Matt Ridley.
Harper Collins, 2020. 406 pages.
Any work by bestselling British science writer Matt Ridley is informed by his position as a Libertarian, fierce champion of England’s exit from the European Union, and member of the House of Lords since 2013. That background infuses his latest book, How Innovation Works, which argues passionately against government regulation and the stifling practices of big business in fields as diverse as genetically modified food, blockchain, and nuclear energy. The book’s first half draws from both historical and contemporary examples to define and distinguish innovation from invention. Later chapters zero in on impediments posed by groups with vested interests, culminating with warnings about “innovation famine” and a diminished future should innovators continue to face such daunting opposition. Whether discussing gene editing, open-source software, or 16th-century efforts to suppress coffee, Ridley’s provocative points merit serious consideration.
Some observations will be familiar to engineering professionals. Unlike a single act of invention, for example, innovation unfolds over time and with considerable grit. Individuals may have eureka moments, but functional, significant breakthroughs involve multiple players, iterations, setbacks, and refinements. Indoor plumbing, printing, silicon chips, and wheeled suitcases are among the advances explored in the first seven chapters, which are organized in categories such as energy, public health, and prehistoric innovation. Rather than examine ancient (fire, agriculture, mathematics) and modern (search engines, gene editing, open-source apps) creations in depth, Ridley opts to highlight aspects of their development. Even well-worn engineering tales, such as the Wright brothers’ struggles to stay competitive and solvent, offer novel insights.
There is an inevitability to many innovations, Ridley suggests, fueled by the inventive ferment of a period. “Someone would have got planes into the air within the first decade of the twentieth century even without the Wrights,” he writes, because the advent of motors meant that “many people would then try, and trial and error was all that was really needed.” Ridley also emphasizes the need to see Orville and Wilbur Wright as part of a continuum of innovations involving manned flight, leading to further refinements of jet turbines as well as less recognized but equally crucial elements, such as safer flying conditions. The latter, he notes, arose during a period of deregulation. The “great democratization of the airline industry over the past half century” has not resulted in cut corners and risk-taking but in a “safety revolution” as commercial airlines continue to improve equipment, airport operations, and pilot training. Ridley also underscores how innovations are never isolated from market competition. Thomas Edison succeeded not because he was the only one tinkering with filaments, but rather because he was persistent—and cutthroat with competitors.
Chapter 8, “Innovation essentials,” reiterates Ridley’s definition of innovation through 10 core elements, including “innovation is inexorable”; “innovation prefers fragmented governance”; and “innovation means using fewer resources rather than more.” Closing chapters focus on economic and political issues, discussing how innovations advance or get stymied. Ridley offers a fascinating example of vested political interests in the early resistance to coffee. In 1511, coffeehouses were shut down in Cairo, then Mecca. By the late 1700s, Sweden had banned coffee five times and the government “confiscated coffee cups from its citizens in a desperate effort to enforce the ban, and ceremonially crushed a coffee pot in 1794.” Some priests, imams, and wine merchants preached against coffee’s “violent nature,” but rulers also railed against the role of coffeehouses as gathering places for gossip—and sedition. Ridley draws a connection from this resistance to debates over genetically modified food, charging activists with inflaming public hostility for their own benefit despite evidence of the safety and benefits for populations in need.
Building on his decade-old bestseller The Rational Optimist, Ridley remains convinced that technological advances can address many of the world’s most pressing challenges, from food insecurity to renewable energy. Yet he sees “forces of complacency and stagnation” in Europe, the United States, and Japan preventing crucial experimentation, while China, with its less stringent regulations and greater work drive, already has taken the lead in areas as diverse as artificial intelligence, gene editing, and solar power. “Somehow we must find a way to reform the regulatory state so that while keeping us safe it does not prevent the simple process of trial and error on which all innovation depends,” warns Ridley. Whether or not one agrees with his analyses, the author’s call for greater understanding of the innovative process and its vital economic role is timely. “Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity,” he underscores. “We abandon it at our peril.”
Robin Tatu is Prism‘s book editor.
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