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Autocatalysing innovations

Autocatalysing innovations are innovations whose outputs lead to a virtuous cycle of further adoption and innovation.

Steam engines

The earliest steam engines were used to pump water out of coal mines, where coal was as cheap as it could be and the size, efficiency and noise of the engine didn’t much matter.

Pumping out the mines made coal easier to extract and cheaper, which lead to further demand for (and refinement of) the engines, which resulted in more effective, more efficient engines at lower prices, which lead to other uses, and eventually to locomotives and railways, which distributed coal more widely and more cheaply, which lead to further demand and further development…


The development of cheap reading materials as Gutenberg’s revolution got underway increased the incentives for learning to read, which lead to a greater market for printed materials, resulting in further innovations and lower prices – and a greater pool of potential authors writing better quality reading material, which increased the value of literacy further… and round and round it goes.


The story of computing follows a similar chain of autocatalysis, with greater uptake of chips incentivising the development of more powerful but cheaper computers, which found applications in more and more markets, leading to more innovation and further developments as the market grew and computer aided design and production catalysed the development of more powerful chips for less.

Autocatalysis, virtuous cycles and you

There might be a virtuous cycle waiting to be discovered in your project. It might be an external force that gives you increasing momentum and a sense of the wind in your sails as you work.

Or it might be internal: showing up and doing your work consistently produces results, giving you the confidence to continue and the motivation to do better, which leads you to identify the work you do best and how you do your best work, which leads to further results, and to people telling others about what you do, which creates new opportunities and pushes you forward.

Find your catalyst, and avoid the opposite.

Hat tip to Matt Ridley, whose How Innovation Works is full of great stories of virtuous cycles.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...