How Innovation Works: Serendipity, Energy and the Saving of Time

How Innovation Works: Serendipity, Energy and the Saving of Time

by Matt Ridley

How Innovation Works contains a plethora of real-life examples of innovators who took on seemingly insurmountable challenges and transformed their brilliant ideas into game-changing innovations. From the earliest of human civilizations to today's cutting-edge technologies, these inspiring examples will challenge your perceptions of innovation and show you that anyone can be a change-maker.

Summary Notes

Reframe How You Think of Innovation and Invention

“[Innovation] means much more than invention because the word implies developing an invention to the point where it catches on because it is sufficiently practical, affordable, reliable, and ubiquitous to be worth using.”

Innovation can be defined as a new method or product that becomes a new practice somewhere in the world. Inventions, on the other hand, are the creation of something wholly new that has never been before, although they are not always useful to the world. Innovators are the people who take inventions and turn them into useful, affordable, and reliable products or ideas.

Sometimes, the people we call inventors are actually innovators. Thomas Edison, the “inventor” of the lightbulb, is an illustrative example of this. The lightbulb was not the result of a heroic inventor, but rather a story of gradual, incremental, and collective innovation. Edison didn’t invent any new technologies. Rather, he figured out how to combine existing technologies with a system for generating and distributing electricity. Because he turned already existing ideas into a practical, reliable, and affordable reality, what he did was clearly not an invention.

Economists and social scientists are baffled as to why and how innovation occurs. However, we do know that, like evolution, innovation happens gradually. The reason it happens over time instead of in a “breakthrough” moment is that innovation requires trial and error, which takes time. Unlike invention, innovation is potentially infinite because even if we run out of new things to create, we can always mold existing innovations to be more efficient and cheap.

Actions to take

Understand and Accept the Challenges You May Face as an Innovator

“Innovation is one of those things that everybody favors in general, and everybody finds a reason to be against in particular cases. Far from being welcomed and encouraged, innovators have to struggle against the vested interests of incumbents, the cautious conservatism of human psychology, the profitability of protest, and the barriers to entry erected by patents, regulations, standards, and licenses.”

Innovation often brings about progress and benefits for individuals and society, but the journey of an innovator is not often smooth sailing.

One challenge that stales innovation is the opinions of the general public. When new ideas or processes are proposed, the general public may sometimes respond with a knee-jerk reaction, such as worry, disgust, mistrust, and other critical feelings. This can make it difficult for innovators to gain acceptance for their ideas and can even lead to strikes and protests.

Another obstacle is the opinion of governing bodies and businesses, who can create regulations that may inhibit the evolution of an innovative idea or product. Furthermore, large companies may be too focused on maintaining the status quo and may not be as responsive to the changing needs and desires of consumers.

Additionally, patents and intellectual property laws can also pose a challenge for innovators. These laws are designed to protect the rights of inventors, but they can also limit access to new ideas and raise the costs of goods. This can make it more difficult for innovators to experiment and test their ideas.

Finally, it is important to note that innovation is not just a matter of having a good idea. It requires hard work and perseverance to turn an idea into a reality. Even when an innovator has a great idea, they may not know if it will work or not until they have tried it. This uncertainty can make it difficult to stay motivated and continue working on a project.

Actions to take

Understand and Accept the (Often Slow) Process of Innovation

“For a start, innovation is nearly always a gradual, not a sudden thing. Eureka moments are rare, possibly non-existent, and where they are celebrated it is with the help of big dollops of hindsight and long stretches of preparation, not to mention multiple wrong turns along the way.”

Innovation is often thought of as an instant revolution, but in reality, it acts more like evolution. Many innovations, such as electricity, turbines, and computers, are the result of a gradual build-up over time. Each previous innovation paves the way for the next, and the process is marked by periods of failure, improvement in affordability, and trial and error.

However, external factors such as intellectual property restrictions and government regulations can slow down the process even further. In addition, some innovations rely on other innovations to happen first before they can become relevant, useful, and take off.

Due to the gradual nature of innovation, it is impossible to pinpoint a specific day when an innovation comes into existence. For example, there is no specific day where one can say, “computers did not exist yesterday and exist today.”

Actions to take

Nurture Your Tolerance for Failure

“Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb not by inspiration but by perspiration: he and his team tested 6,000 different materials for the filament. ‘I’ve not failed,’ he once said. ‘I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Failure is a trademark of innovation because a key aspect of innovating is the process of trial and error. To participate productively in trial and error, one must be okay with finding errors. Finding an error is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently because you know what isn’t working.

Take air travel, for example. Without the willingness to experiment and learn from past failures, we would not have the safe and efficient air travel we have today. Simply put, the key to this progress was learning from accidents and transparently sharing the results of accident investigations worldwide.

Sometimes failure is not possible because trial and error are limited by regulations or the cost of goods. An example of this is nuclear innovation. Due to high costs and increasing safety concerns, it is nearly impossible to innovate in nuclear energy. Because of this, nuclear energy has remained insulated from efficiency, affordability, and safety advancements.

Trial and error are necessary for innovative advancements, and tolerance for error is necessary to continue innovation. To increase your tolerance for error, adding an element of playfulness throughout the process may be beneficial.

Actions to take

Accept Other Innovators as Support Instead of Competition

“Innovation is a collective phenomenon that happens between, not within, brains. Therein lies a lesson for the modern world.”

Every new innovation is a combination of existing ideas and products. Thus, innovations are always a team effort, even if innovators work individually.

For example, the invention of the light bulb by Thomas Edison was a combination of existing ideas and technologies brought together to create something new and more reliable. But it's not just the inventor; other people, such as the ones who manufacture it and make it affordable, also play a crucial role in making it successful.

Another important aspect to consider is that innovations must sometimes rely on other innovations to become relevant and useful. Take luggage with wheels, for example. The idea for this existed for some time, but it wasn't until the infrastructure of airports changed to support bags with wheels that it became relevant and widespread. This highlights the fact that innovation is often dependent on other innovations and external factors.

If we cut people off from exchanging innovative ideas, we lower the chances of innovating. Instead, we can support one another as innovators by keeping intellectual property public, sharing our insights freely, and allowing everyone to experiment with an idea.

One person may make a technological breakthrough, another may figure out how to manufacture it, and a third may figure out how to make it cheap enough to catch on. All are part of the innovation process, and none of them knows how to complete the whole innovation.

Actions to take

Nurture the Courage to Be Disliked

“Innovation often requires courage.”

Some innovations may create feelings of fear, annoyance, burden, and other negative feelings in people. However, if other people are upset by your innovation, it does not mean it is invaluable—in fact, many innovations that have turned out to be life-changing began with backlash.

Take the Salk vaccine, for example. The Salk vaccine was a biomedical innovation that was created using monkey kidney tissue. One scientist became worried that a virus present in the monkey kidney tissue used to create the vaccine may cause cancer in some people. So, despite the opposition from her boss, she continued her experiments on hamsters and reported her findings at a scientific meeting. As a result, she was fired from polio work and banned from speaking about her experiments.

But her persistence paid off. The contaminating virus was eventually isolated and studied, revealing that almost all polio vaccines in America exposed people to monkey viruses, some of which have been linked to cancer. The scientist was initially criticized, but her innovative work proved valuable in the end.

Actions to take

Explore What Science Hasn’t Figured Out Yet

“Innovation is the Mother of Science as Often as it is the Daughter.”

The linear model of science leading to technology and ultimately to innovation is a popular belief among politicians, journalists, and the public. This belief is widely used to justify government funding for science as a driving force of innovation.

However, this view is not always accurate. Invention can also drive science. Throughout history, technologies and inventions have been utilized effectively without a scientific understanding of how they work.

Take the concept of vaccination, for example. Back in the 18th century, it was considered irrational to think that it can be used to protect you against a disease. After all, there was no scientific basis for it. It wasn't until Louis Pasteur's work in the late 19th century that the science behind vaccination was uncovered. Thus, sometimes, practical application precedes scientific understanding.

Actions to take

Innovate Starting With Other People’s Ideas

“You don’t need to invent something to be an innovator. There is just as much value in putting other people’s ideas together or making another idea practical as it is to invent something.”

Innovation is a thrilling journey of discovery, where new technologies are born from the combination of existing ones. Every technology is built upon previous technologies, and every idea is a fusion of other ideas. This leads to a natural cycle of innovation, where one innovation leads to another and improves upon what came before it.

Think of innovation as a process of searching for and blending existing components in a novel way. It can be as simple as finding a new way to use a previous innovation - organizing it better, making it more practical, or streamlining it. In fact, much of today's innovative growth is actually a result of doing more with less. Rather than relying on an increase in resources, the main driver of economic growth is the innovation that helps us make the most of what we have.

History is full of examples of innovators who built upon the work of others. For example, the inventors of the motor car did not have to reinvent the wheel, steel, or springs. Had they done so, it's unlikely they would have been successful in creating a working car. This highlights the importance of using existing technologies and ideas to drive innovation forward.

Actions to take

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