This is a wonderful book, and a fitting companion to Terence Kealey’s Sex, Science and Profits and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile (though the latter would be horrified by the author’s enthusiasm for GMO crops). Indeed, Ridley is a little too optimistic at times, even for me. Just as evolution takes wrong turns, so can technology. Email (desirable in small doses, intolerable when overused) seems an example of what biologists call Fisherian runaway.
I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to researchers, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, venture capitalists and others who want to increase and exploit innovation. All will know that it is the vital ingredient if society is to increase productivity and deliver a higher standard of living. This book is not necessarily a how-to manual for those who innovate for a living — software founders or car designers, say. Rather, it provides an accessible history, context and philosophy for it. Too many of the recent books on the topic obsess about Silicon Valley. This is a much more sweeping and thoughtful analysis that covers a wide range of human technical endeavours.
Ridley draws on examples from across history to make his compelling case. Necessity wasn’t the mother of invention when it came to farming, he points out. Humanity invented farming in a time of plenty, rather than famine, as only then could communities take up the luxury of learning by trial and error. The most innovative places on the planet have also been centres of trade. One of the reasons the United States has spawned so many entrepreneurs in recent decades is because bankruptcy is not a life sentence.
“Innovation happens,” Ridley concludes, “when people are free to think, experiment and speculate. It happens when people can trade with each other. It happens when people are relatively prosperous, not desperate. It is somewhat contagious. It needs investment. It generally happens in cities.” It is gradual, not sudden. It involves multiple wrong turns and an awful lot more perspiration than inspiration. And we’d all be better off if there were a great deal more of it.