An exploration of ‘How Innovation Works’
Jon Gertner reviews “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley.
Innovation, Matt Ridley tells us at the start of his new treatise on the subject, “is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood.” Even as it functions as a powerful engine of prosperity — the accelerant of human progress — innovation remains the “great puzzle” that baffles technologists, economists and social scientists alike. In many respects, Ridley is on to something. After decades of careful study, we’re still not entirely sure about innovation’s causes or how it can best be nurtured. Is innovation dependent on a lone genius, or is it more a product of grinding teamwork? Does it occur like a thunderclap, or does it take years or even decades to coalesce? Is it usually situated in cities, or in well-equipped labs in office parks?
We can’t even agree on its definition. Generally speaking, an innovation is more than an idea and more than an invention. Yet beyond that, things get confusing. We live in a moment when we’re barraged by new stuff every day — new phones, new foods, new surgical techniques. In the pandemic, we’re confronted, too, with new medical tests and pharmaceutical treatments. But which of these are true innovations and which are novel variations on old products? And while we’re at this game, is innovation limited to just technology, or might we include new additions to our culture, like a radical work of literature, art or film?