Matt Ridley is one of those uncles you would like to visit because you know you are guaranteed to hear hilarious and insightful stories.

I firstly encountered Matt Ridley through his very humorous TED talk titled: When Ideas have Sex. So you can imagine by the title that you are in for an interesting talk, and the talk is very interesting.

Innovation is not the same as invention, writes bestselling science writer Ridley. Innovation rarely proceeds from a single genius and takes much longer.

Innovation resembles Darwinian evolution, a process of “rearranging the world into forms that are unlikely to arise by chance—and that happen to be useful….And innovation is potentially infinite because even if it runs out of new things to do, it can always find ways to do the same things more quickly or for less energy.”

Throughout the book, Matt Ridley delivers fascinating histories of technology that we take for granted. Many hands contributed to the developments of the steam engine, automobile, and computer.

Ridley makes a convincing case that obsessive trial and error works better than inspiration and illustrates with insightful accounts of Edison, the Wright brothers, and Marconi. Some breakthroughs are inexplicable.

Some short take-aways from the book:

Innovation:
1. Happens randomly and unpredictably
2. Many failures but a few great breakthroughs
3. Often happens simultaneously across different countries and continent, but usually attributed to the most successful inventor
4. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration
5. Mostly done by practical people such as mechanics and other tinkerers and seldom by professors
6. Science mostly comes after the invention
7. All are built on other prior innovation
8. Cross pollination of ideas very important
9. Must serve a need or else it will disappear
10. Needs supportive innovation to work; timing is everything
11. Regulation kills innovation and benefits the incumbents (European regulation on IT/GMO food/vacuum Cleaners). No innovation means stagnant economy
12. Empires are bad for innovation; small independent states good
13. Freedom to experiment and fail and learn from them is critical for success.

Rating

9/10

I am an admirer of Ridley’s writing, even if I don’t share some of his views. His ability to make scientific subjects accessible to a lay audience makes him one of the stand-out writers in this genre. 

I highly recommend this book to entrepreneurs and innovators.

My Favourite Quotes

  • “Innovation is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood”
  • “Innovation happens when people are free to think, experiment and speculate”
  • “Most innovation is a gradual process. The modern obsession with disruptive innovation, a phrase coined by the Harvard professor Clayton Christensen in 1995, is misleading”
  • “Failure is often the father of success in innovation”
  • “The history of turbines and electricity is profoundly gradual, not marked by any sudden step changes”
  • “Innovation is one of those things that everybody favours in general, and everybody finds a reason to be against in particular cases”
  • “Innovation is the child of freedom, because it is free, creative attempt to satisfy freely expressed human desires”
  • “Edison tested 6,000 plant material till he found the right kind of bamboo for the filament of the light bulb. The perspiration, not the inspiration, is the bit that much of the West has forgotten or forbidden”
  • “Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity. It is on balance a very good thing. We abandon it at our own peril”
  • “Italy’s most fertile inventive period was in the Renaissance, when it was the small city states, run by merchants, that drove innovation: in Genoa, Florence, Venice, Luca, Siena and Milan. Fragmented polities proved better than united ones”
  • “For at least a thousand years, innovation has disproportionately happened in cities, and especially self-governing ones”
  • “We make a mistake if we insist that science is always upstream of technology. Quite often scientific understanding comes from an attempt to explain and improve a technical innovation”
  • “Throughout the 19th century, as Britain and Europe developed new railways, steel, electricity, textiles and many other technologies, government played almost no role at all, except, as a belated regulator, standard creator and customer”
  • “America became the most advanced and innovative country in the world in the early decades of the 20th century without significant public subsidy for research and development of any kind before 1940”

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