Innovating the World

Detail of Thomas Alva Edison by Abraham Archibald Anderson, 1890. (National Portrait Gallery)
Matt Ridley in his new book makes the case that ‘innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity.’

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, by Matt Ridley
Harper, 416 pages, $29.99

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE B ritish writer Matt Ridley is the author of many fine books, with one of the most notable up till now being The Rational Optimist. There he showed how technological progress has continually falsified Malthusian prophesies of doom. But what drives such progress, and how can we best guarantee that it will continue to bless us in the future? In How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, Ridley seeks the answers to these most vital questions.

In the first half of the book, Ridley regales us with tales about the birth of numerous key innovations, ranging from agriculture and medicine to transport, power generation, communications, and computers, spanning human history from the Stone Age to the present. He then devotes most of the rest of the book to drawing out a number of key points, leading toward a general theory of innovation.

Innovation, he says, occurs largely by trial and error, with practice leading science more often than the reverse. This is certainly true. People understood how to breed crops, smelt steel, and even build steam engines long before they had any valid theories of genetics, chemistry, or thermodynamics. In fact, with the notable exception of navigation, it’s hard to find any important area of technical practice enabled by theoretical science until the mid-19th century. With the advent of the study of electromagnetism, nuclear physics, and quantum mechanics, this changes. But even in technologies based on these sciences, it has largely been trial and error by practitioners that has led to continued progress — or the regulatory prevention of such adaptative variation, as in the case of nuclear power, that has stifled it.

Ridley opposes the heroic theory of invention, pointing out that when the technological background becomes ripe, several people will frequently come up with the same new idea almost simultaneously. However, he also draws a strong distinction between innovation and invention, and here is where heroic individuals do make the difference. During the 1870s many people were working on electric lighting, and about 20 reasonable claimants for its invention can be identified. But it was really Thomas Edison — not just an inventor, but an innovator — who made electric lighting a reality, as he put the whole system together, including not only long-lived light bulbs but also efficient dynamos, centrally generated electric power, transmission lines, power meters, fuses, and the rest of the technology, and then mobilized the investment and overcame the opposition to implement it.

That said, Edison’s innovation would not have been possible without myriads of old and young technologies already at hand, ready to be mated by a skillful breeder of ideas to give birth to world-changing new progeny. As Ridley says, “inventions are ideas having sex.” Edison’s innovations became parents or parts of others. In a culture of invention, the process of combination and recombination of ideas multiples the possibilities without limit; the more inventions there are, the more new ones become conceivable. We will never have done it all, because each new step in this process opens up vast new prospects for ever more spectacular creation.

There is more to this line of thought, on both a practical and a philosophical level, than I can adequately set forth here, as it has deep implications for all sorts of self-organization processes in nature, including physical, chemical, and biological evolution as well. Ridley touches on these latter aspects of his vision lightly. Perhaps he intends to deal with them more fully in a subsequent work. If not, others would do well to accept the challenge themselves.

In the final portion of the book, Ridley devotes himself to targeting pathological forms of social organization that have served to strangle innovation, including a number of infamous historical examples, but he focuses most particularly on the current regulatory bureaucracies of the European Union. In the name of the “precautionary principle,” these folks have sabotaged entire fields of technology, including the vital area of genetically modified organisms, causing untold economic harm, mass unemployment, social immobility, and millions of disabilities and deaths in the process. The absurd antics adopted by these bureaucrats in their obstruction of progress would make great fodder for a Jonathan Swift, providing comedy that alone would be worth the price of the book, if only they were not true. One statistic related by Ridley gives a sense of the stagnation imposed on what used to be one of the world’s most innovative regions: Of the 100 largest firms in the EU, not one was founded less than 40 years ago.

This brings us to Ridley’s ultimate point. The key ingredient necessary for innovation is liberty.

“Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity,” he says in closing.

It is on balance a very good thing. We abandon it at our peril. The peculiar fact that one species has somehow got into the habit of rearranging the atoms and electrons of the world in such a way as to create new and thermodynamically improbable structures and ideas that are of practical use to the wellbeing of that species never ceases to amaze me. That many members of the species show little curiosity about how this rearranging comes about, and why it matters, puzzles me. That many people think more about how to constrain rather than encourage it worries me. That there is no practical limit to the ways in which the species could arrange the atoms and electrons of the world into improbable structures in the centuries and millennia that lie ahead excites me. The future is thrilling and it is the improbability drive of innovation that will take us there.

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is the founder of the Mars Society and the president of Pioneer Astronautics. His latest book is The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.

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