Serendipity and Innovation
By Alberto Mingardi
Second in a #ReadWithMe series.
Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works is a treasure trove of examples which suggest that innovation is often serendipitous. Indeed, sometimes “use precedes understanding”. Writes Ridley that “throughout history, technologies and inventions have been deployed successfully without scientific understanding of why they work”. Later science catches up.
This is something to keep in mind, when confronted with the so called “linear model”, by which government funds pure science which leads to applied research which (purportedly) leads to economic progress.
One interesting case in point is variolation. Lady Mary Wortley witness to inoculation against smallpox in Constantinople, where her husband was an ambassador. She did “engraft” “her son Edward, anxiously watching his skin erupt in self-inflicted pustules before subsiding into immunized health. It was a brave moment. On her return to London she inoculated her daughter as well, and became infamous for her championing of the somewhat reckless procedure”.
Ridley remarks that “To a rational person in the eighteenth century, Lady Mary’s idea that exposure to one strain of a fatal disease could protect against that disease must have seemed crazy. There was no rational basis to it. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Louis Pasteur began to explain how and why vaccination worked”.
So, sometimes successful innovation arrives before science and actually defies the then consensus. This contributes to explain why it is so hard to plan it. How can you plan the unexpected?