What does Innovation Works

A plea for freedom and curiosity: The book "How Innovation Works" by Matt Ridley

The Briton Matt Ridley is one of the most successful non-fiction authors today - and for Bernhard Lermann, who is writing his latest book How Innovation Works has read for us, even among the best. He recommends it as a pleasure and as a plea for more curiosity about the new.

From Bernhard Lermann

A light bulb is something wonderful! Perhaps one of the most important inventions of the last two hundred years. It is not for nothing that it symbolizes the brilliant idea. But it also occupies a special place among the inventions of mankind because its history is typical of what innovation and inventiveness are all about.

Apparently twenty-one different inventors can claim to have independently developed or significantly improved the light bulb by the end of the 1870s. Although most of them never knew each other or worked together. And even if the German watchmaker Heinrich Goebel had already made the first usable incandescent lamp with a carbonized bamboo fiber glow in 1854, it was Thomas Alva Edison who started industrial mass production with a carbon filament lamp in 1879.

When he patented it, the market was also ripe for the light bulb, as Werner Siemens had meanwhile invented the dynamo, which considerably simplified electricity generation and made the light bulb a mass product.

What is the difference between invention and innovation?

"Simultaneous invention marks the progress of technology as if there is something ripe about the moment. It does not necessarily imply plagiarism, ”writes Matt Ridley in his new book How Innovation Works, which is not yet available in German translation. So if several, very similar inventions happen at the same time, the time is simply ripe for this technological advance.

Ridley's central argument, however, is that improvements in technology are driven by innovators rather than inventors. Inventors make essential discoveries that create scientific know-how. Innovators, on the other hand, use trial and error to make thousands of small changes to a product or process that is already working well in itself so that it can be scaled to outsmart regulators and beat the competition.

The reader is always surprised

For Ridley, Samuel Morse, the developer of the writing telegraph, did more to connect the world than anyone before or after him. Because he overcame the political and practical hurdles: "Morse’s real achievement, like that of most innovators, was to battle his way through political and practical obstacles."

Matt Ridley is one of the best non-fiction authors today. His latest book is also a pleasure. He casually presents his considerable knowledge, as the British do best. Even the educated reader is surprised again and again in the first half of the book when Ridley vividly explains how various innovations came about - from agriculture to artificial intelligence. In the last five chapters, he shows us how to encourage innovation and how it can go wrong.

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Innovation needs freedom

He sums up his conclusion in two sentences: “The secret sauce that leads to innovation is freedom. Freedom to exchange, experiment, imagine, invest and fail; freedom from expropriation or restriction by chiefs, priests and thieves; freedom on the part of consumers to reward the innovations they like and reject the ones they do not. ”So the key to innovation lies in the freedom to experiment and make mistakes, in the freedom from regulations or appropriation by superiors or priests and ultimately also in the freedom of consumers.

An admirable slogan, because freedom is a sensitive good. It can exist where it is not expected and it can suffer where it already exists in abundance - for example, through overzealous caution. Innovation, according to Matt Ridley, "is the reason most people today live lives of prosperity and wisdom compared with their ancestors". Innovation is the reason for our wealth and knowledge. If that's true, then it's in everyone's best interests to learn more and more about how we can innovate. Matt Ridley's new book helps with this.

Cover picture: Getty Images