The final post of a #ReadWithMe series on Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works


If Matt Ridley is right, and “most innovation consists of the non-random retention of variations in design”, shall we really care about innovation? If innovation comes out of a largely random process, how can we control, plan, help it?

There is a substantial industry of “fostering innovation”, both in government and its advisors and private consultants and private managers, too. They tend to frame innovation as something which is in the hands of producers, of makers. Producers, makers, inventors are certainly a big part of it: but so are customers, users who produce feedback and help in fine tuning ideas and applications. In other words, it is a mistake to consider innovation as the output of a process of “intelligent design”: it comes out of a process of selection, in which the contrivances of designers survive not because they are“good” or “ambitious” or “radical” but because they proved to be “useful”.


Failure in designing and fostering innovation is proved by the fact, Ridley argues, we are closer to an innovation famine than to an innovation plenty. Peter Thiel popularized the idea that we are very innovative in bits, not so much so with atoms. Ridley agrees. In recent years we achieved momentous changes in information technology, not so much elsewhere.

“My grandparents had the opposite experience from what my generation has seen: big changes in transport and few in communication. Born before the motor car or the aeroplane, they lived to see supersonic planes in the sky, wars fought by helicopter and men on the moon.”


Ridley does not blame the complacency and stagnation only on the private sector. “Multinationals have absorbed the mentality of planners, rather than entrepreneurs”. One common theme in his book is the idea that innovation tends to start small, and is often pursued by smaller companies, by outsiders. “Big companies are bad at innovating, because they are too bureaucratic”.


In its essence, Ridley believes there is a tinkering, artisanal element in innovation. But he also maintains that successful innovation requires, on the part of the producer, an agility and flexibility which are often absent in bigger organizations.


This puts him literally at the opposite pole from some of the conventional wisdom on the matter. Lots of people think innovation needs big money, great corporate structures or great government structures also in order to administer competitive bids and somehow “foster” private entrepreneurship, and plenty of capital to endure if an idea is not immediately profitable.


What’s the key difference, between this vision and Ridley’s? I would answer with a word: “directionality”. Ridley believes innovation “happens”. Others believe the course of development can be shaped by decisive action. You need somebody in charge, to “direct” efforts towards a certain goal. Ridley would respond that this way you are likely to lose at least as many opportunities as you purportedly gain.


How Innovation Works is a refreshing read. It is a book about innovation as we knew it, not as we wished it. Of course the future can always be different from the past, yet perhaps it is worth considering the past and its lessons, if we can spot them.



Links to the previous posts on this series are here.