Uncovering the Mystery Behind Innovation

Ever wonder why Americans enjoy a substantially higher standard of living than any other large country? According to Matt Ridley, it is because the liberal democracy we have nurtured over the last 250 years is the essential catalyst to foster innovation.

Our high standard of living is the result of economic growth. The economy grows not just through putting more people, resources, and capital to work. That’s the easy part and it explains a little, but not the 30-to-1 (or 100-to-1, depending on whose data you believe) increase in well-being since the Industrial Revolution.1 That kind of hypergrowth comes from innovation. Innovation is what enables you to do more with less: more production using fewer materials, more results achieved in less time, more satisfaction with less effort.

In How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley, the author of The Red Queen, The Rational Optimist, and many other works on biology, evolution, the economy, and progress, turns his attention to the anatomy of technological advancement. (Ridley, properly the Fifth Viscount Ridley, is a hereditary peer of the House of Lords and was trained as a biologist.)

Even more than the esteemed Stephen Jay Gould, Ridley has been the inspiration for my writing . The first paragraph of How Innovation Works is a fine example of how Ridley’s mind functions:

An idea pops into my head as I [photograph a duck]: a riff on the second law of thermodynamics… The idea is this: the electricity in my iPhone’s battery and the warmth in the eider duck’s body are doing roughly the same thing: making improbable order (photographs, ducklings) by expending or converting energy.

And then I think that the idea I’ve just had itself, like the eider duck and the iPhone, is also an improbable arrangement of synaptic activity in my brain, also fueled by energy from…food…but made possible by the underlying order of the brain, itself the evolved product of millennia of natural selection acting on individuals, each of whose own improbabilities were sustained by energy conversion.

Ridley concludes: “Improbable arrangements of the world, crystallized consequences of energy generation, are what both life and technology are all about.” Whew! That’s quite a string of connections, all sparked by a photograph of a bird.