Matt Ridley: 15 principles of innovation from “How Innovation Works”

I think it [Innovation] is the most important thing that happens in history, bar none. It’s what explains all the trends that happen in the world, it’s what explains the prosperity, but it’s also what explains all the other cultural trends – it explains how social media has gone crazy and things like that. Innovation is at the heart of all this.


And yet it’s a surprisingly mysterious process. Nobody really understands why it happens to us and not to rabbits or rocks. What is it about human society that enables us to suddenly have new devices, new habits, new technologies, new social patterns? And why has it accelerated so much in the last couple of centuries? Why did we go with very very slow innovation for thousands of years and then suddenly since the industrial revolution we’ve seen a great shockwave of continuous innovation? And why does it go quicker in some parts of the world than in others? Why does it go quicker in some times than in others, and some sectors than in others? Why have we seen so little innovation in transport in my lifetime but so much innovation in computing and communication, for example.



These are the themes that I think keep cropping up:



1. Innovation is gradual


It’s much more gradual than people think… when you look at a disruptive innovation you nearly always find that it was preceded by a lot of preparatory work and it was succeeded by a lot of work to embed it in society.



2. Innovation is serendipitous – there’s a lot of luck involved.


Kevlar, Teflon, the Post-it note were all invented by people looking for something completely different.



3. Innovation is recombinant.


Nearly all technologies consist of combining old technologies.



4. Innovation is different from invention.


Invention means coming up with a new thing; innovation means making that new thing available, affordable and reliable in such a way that people actually go out and use it.



5. Trial and error is a crucial ingredient of innovation.


Again and again… I found people emphasising the importance of making mistakes and learning from them, of trying one thing and finding it didn’t work and trying another, and doing so again and again and again. Almost never did someone have a good idea and go straight to it and it worked first time. And the guys who got this – who really understood that trial and error was at the heart of innovation – were the ones who triumphed.

6. Innovation is a team sport.


It’s just not true that individuals in ivory towers make great innovations. They try to, but they have to, in the end, combine and compare their ideas with other people to make it works. It never works to go off and do it secretly on your own.


7. Innovation doesn’t need heroes to make it happen.


… 21 different people have a good claim to have invented the light-bulb independently in the 1870s without conferring… what was happening was that the technologies that you needed to combine – the technologies of electricity, of vacuums, of glass, of all these kinds of things had reached the point where it was ripe, where it was inevitable someone would put them together.



8. Innovation is amazingly predictable when you look backwards. It’s amazingly unpredictable when you look forwards.


That paradox leads to a lot of very stupid things being said about the future of technology.



9. Innovations go through a hype-cycle.


In the long run we underestimate the impact of a new technology. In the short run we overestimate it… there tends to be a slow build up and then a rapid acceleration.


10. Innovation doesn’t like big unified regimes.

[Huge empires, centralised governments and enormous companies don’t tend to be very good at innovation]



11. Innovation is evolutionary.


… It shows descent with modifications. When you get on an aeroplane, you rather hope that it’s been designed by an intelligent person… But actually, when you think about it, the person who designed it didn’t start with scratch, they started with the previous design and adapted it, and so on all the way back to the Wright Brothers. And the ones that didn’t work – that either crashed to often or were too expensive to run – they got left behind. And the ones that worked, through a process of natural selection, survived.


12. Innovation is the seed of science just as often as it is the fruit of science.



We think scientific, philosophical enquiry discovers principles which are then applied in technologies that we all use. And that does sometimes happen, but just as often it’s the other way around: we tinker with technologies and come up with things that work and we then go back and try and understand why. The science of thermodynamics came out of the steam engine; the science of chemistry came out of the dyeing industry … CRISPR gene editing… looks like it comes out of Berkeley and MIT universities, but actually… a key role was played by the yogurt industry before it even got into universities.



13. Innovation creates jobs rather than destroys them.


The idea that automation causes unemployment has been around with us for 200 years… Every thirty to forty years we have a new panic about how innovation is going to result in mass unemployment. It never happens. It never will happen: the richer we get through innovation the more we’re going to find ways of giving each other things to do.


14. Innovation can be infinite in a world of finite resources.


… It can cause us to do more with less. Innovation in agriculture has meant that we now use 68% less land to produce a given amount of food as we did 50 years ago. … There’s now only 13% as much aluminium in a drinks can as there was when drinks can were first invented. The amount of stuff used in the British economy in total – that is to say, imported stuff and produced stuff … – is not just going down per capita, but it’s going down in total. We’re using less stuff every year.


15. Innovation flourishes in freedom.


… The more you free people up to express their wishes as consumers in what it is they want from innovators, and and express their experimental interests as producers to see if they can come up with new ideas to satisfy those wishes… the more you get innovation.

Matt RidleyAcademy of Ideas Podcast, 7 July 2020

Ridley is an interesting and engaging speaker – definitely worth checking out.

See also:

Matt Ridley: invention vs innovation
Efosa Ojomo on market-creating innovation
Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators
Marc Andreesen on networks of innovation
… and “Scenius”
C├ęsar Hidalgo on the importance of trust in networks of innovation
Astro Teller on planning, experimentation and innovation
Resource: Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation
Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation
The innovation in your head…
W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation
Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles
Hybrids (2): combinations and connections

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