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

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  1,373 ratings  ·  214 reviews
Innovation is the main event of the modern age, the reason we experience both dramatic improvements in our living standards and unsettling changes in our society. Forget short-term symptoms like Donald Trump and Brexit, it is innovation itself that explains them and that will itself shape the 21st century for good and ill. Yet innovation remains a mysterious process, poorl ...more
ebook, 320 pages
Published May 19th 2020 by Harper (first published May 2020)
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How Innovation Works is an inspiring and thought-provoking review of the history of human innovation with a goal of illustrating three principles. First, that important innovations tend to arise from many people improving incrementally upon the work of others. In other words, that the singular inventor's "Eureka!" moment is largely a myth. Second, that recent regulatory hurdles have hindered innovation, particularly in Europe. And finally, that the net impact of intellectual property laws has be ...more
The book essentially consists of two halves: the first half deals with stories of how innovation came about in fields such as energy, health, technology etc. and the second half, based on the stories, tries to come up with theories for how innovation works. It is a decent conceit -- to grip the reader with rousing tales of scientific and technological breakthroughs and then, using these stories, tease out the mechanism through which innovation works. The problem is, the conceit fails on both cou ...more
Dec 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good book, though not quite as innovative (sorry) or eye-opening as The Rational Optimist. A lot of this book - the first 2/3 or so - is devoted to recounting in great detail different stories of innovation. Throughout these stories, Ridley occasionally reflects on the nature of innovation, drawing lessons about how it occurs as why. But it's not really until the last third of the book that he begins to tie these ideas together in any kind of systematic way. Even then, the "why it flourishes i ...more
Otto Lehto
Jul 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
What a delightful and insightful book. Matt Ridley explains the colourful history of innovations and upends some common preconceptions about how they come up. The book contains several key lessons: 1) Innovation is mostly a result of team effort, co-discovery, serendipity, step by step refinement, aimless tinkering, and endless trial-and-error learning. 2) Innovation strives in a free society where permissionless innovation is encouraged. 3) You cannot plan for innovation but you can encourage i ...more
Jul 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
How Innovation Works: Serendipity, Energy and the Saving of Time (2020) by Matt Ridley is a very good book that looks at how innovation has arisen in recent history and what makes it work.
Ridley defines innovation as different from invention, which is the creation of something new and describes innovation as getting something to market that people actually use and that has an impact on society.
The book emphasizes how innovation almost always gradual, it's done by teams, it's mostly not from a
Gregory Pelley
Ridley is your favorite dinner guest, full of fascinating stories that quickly veer from one point to the next and are offered in a haphazard order. Which is fun at a dinner party. The advantage of the rapid-fire storytelling is to mask the wild contradictions and unsupported claims that he tosses in there.
Still, at some point one begins to wonder why we should listen to him beyond the amusing anecdotes.

Fundamentally, Ridley argues for a free and completely unfettered landscape into which innov
Kurt Jensen
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was at first quite ambivalent about this book, but ultimately I think it's one of the best books I've ever read.

That's not to say I think Ridley is always right. I think some of his arguments are weaker than others, especially: 1) that basic research is only valuable in that it enriches our lives (and it *rarely* leads to innovation), 2) his central conflation that all government is equal to poor regulations stifling innovation and 3) the idea he finishes on - an odd, motivational correlation
Jun 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ridley’s books are always deeply insightful and unconventional. This book is no different.

1. Happens randomly and unpredictably
2. Many failures but a few great breakthroughs
3. Often happens simultaneously across different countries and continent, but usually attributed to the most successful inventor
4. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration
5. Mostly done by practical people such as mechanics and other tinkerers and seldom by professors
6. Science mostly comes after the invention
7. All are
Rajesh Kandaswamy
Jun 28, 2020 rated it liked it
If innovation can be bottled into a formula, it wouldn’t be that unique or valuable. Irrespective of the title, I was interested in getting more perspectives of it, especially from Matt Ridley whose Rational Optimist I enjoyed a while ago (review here).

The book is structured somewhat differently from other books. The author spends a lot of time on specific innovation in different areas for two thirds of the book. The rest of the time is in summarizing the theorizes. The case for the second part
Alex Zakharov
Sep 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quick, fun, and educational read. Matt Ridley covers a familiar and well-trodden territory that deals with history, impact and serendipity of various inventions and innovations. But unlike many others, well-exemplified by Tim Hartford and his “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy”, Ridley doesn’t mind getting a little dirty.

There are plenty of politically charged tangents in the book such as nuclear energy, GMOs, and genetic engineering, as well as controversy-fertile subjects such a
Simon Eskildsen
Apr 01, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've read quite a few books about how innovation works over the past few years, and this is one of the better ones. If it's a topic that interests you, pick it up. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to mark it as read.. it's been a while, so I forget exactly what I got from this and not others... but when reviewing the highlights, they are all very familiar. That's a really good sign. ...more
Derek Pankaew
I liked the overall themes and discoveries of the book. It did feel like it could have been a 3 page Medium post rather than a 200 page book, though. A little boring & drawn out at times.
This book has a lot in common with Andrew McAfee's More From Less, and indeed both authors cite each other directly. They're both very quick reads, touching shallowly on many topics and relying extensively on research done by other scholars, making fairly broad points. But Ridley pulls off that balance much better overall. The book is mostly composed of historical vignettes about invention and innovation, but while none of them are individually very detailed, they're carefully summarized in a wa ...more
Bryan McGarrigle
Sep 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting review of the history of innovation that captures the commonalities which bring it to life. The book provoked much thought on the pre-conditioned beliefs I hold, such as the idea of the innovator and the role of luck in the whole concept. My only critique is that parts of the book seem to be subjective to the authors own political beliefs.
Peter Tillman
As he usually does, Matt Ridley looks at problems from a different angle. WSJ just ran an excerpted essay from his upcoming book:
The expiration of patents often results in a burst of innovation, as with 3-D printing, where the recent lapse of three key patents has resulted in notable improvements in quality and a drop in price. The historian Anton Howes, of the Royal Society of Arts in London, points out that the French government bought out Loui
Sep 17, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: innovation
People love Matt Ridley. I almost feel bad for rating this so low, but he is really in tight with the old guard, Dawkins et al. I thought this would blow my mind. It didn't. It had the potential to, if newer and more progressive science were included, but Ridley is very scientifically conservative.

This is a book about innovation; and yet, it is not very innovative itself. I like that he included life, but even this is nothing new. It was an a pretty standard history of innovation, written about
Jul 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

- patents don’t help
- innovation cannot be planned, it is the result of trial and errors; the science explaining why something works sometimes comes after the innovation
- the west is clogged by bureaucracy
- incumbent megacorps spend more time lobbying for the status quo
- hyperloop is idiotic
- China and Africa are taking over
Dio Mavroyannis
Sep 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Patents and copyright are justified with a question, "Why would people innovate if they didn't expect to gain?» At first glance this argument sounds like common sense; however, if we dig a little we quickly understand that this is "lawyer logic". That is, it is a story that conveniently has lawyers legitimacy reinforced.
Economics teaches us to think in a rather different manner. The narrow interest versus broad interests, specifically for two sides that have equivalent interests, the side that
Athul Suresh
This book was my first foray into non-fiction this year. 

I believe that human beings, with our incessant need for order and meaning, are obsessed with stories and the deeper meaning that lie behind them. This is exactly why I prefer learning about abstract concepts narrated through a well fleshed out story where the ensconced idea gets communicated in a much better manner as opposed to works of non-fictions where they’re presented, cooked and cleaned, with minimal seasoning to make it palatabl ...more
Raz Pirata
“Innovation is a collective phenomenon that happens between, not within, brains.”

Innovation is feeling more like a ‘buzzword’ than a thing that gets done. I hear it on the news, from politicians, at shareholders’ meetings and in mastermind groups. Everybody is talking about innovations and innovating, but I see little of it. Anywhere.

Sure, we got cool phones. Phones and what else? Since the advent of the internet there really has been no life altering innovations to speak of. My life looks a lot
Aug 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I first read Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” and was hooked on his writing then. With “How innovation works” I had high expectations and wasn’t disappointed.

This book covered the mysterious path in the way innovation works (after invention) and how it generally differs from the stories we tell of sole innovations coming up with “Eureka” moments and huge breakthroughs. Innovation is more likely to come from trial and error, involve incremental change and be arrived at the same, or similar,
Innovation is necessary for living flourishing lives and innovation requires freedom to flourish. This is the overall theme of Ridley's latest book. Ridley goes through the history of many essential innovations in energy production, medicine, transportation, food, communication, and more. He distinguishes between innovation and invention: arguing that often the innovations are more important than the invention. The innovations are often what makes a barely workable prototype into a practical and ...more
Amy Young
Honestly this is more like a 3.75, and this is one you’ll want to read with a pen. TLDR; Ignore the inflammatory title (UPDATE: the title in the UK was How Innovation Works: and Why It Flourishes In Freedom). I’d take this book with a grain of salt, but it does contain a lot of strong assertions for what innovation is that will help you set your own opinion.

Invention and Innovation are not the same, and innovation is often due to the daily labors and minor improvements of workers, free to share
Worth reading but some flaws in tone and argument and not as good as The Rational Optimist.

This book seems to have been rushed. The writing quality wasn’t amazing and I noticed several typos. He seems to have knocked out a book on the same theme as his last two books: innovation is a matter of trial and error in free societies unrestricted by regulation. I agree with this basic argument but I kept thinking he was being selective in his evidence, the analysis was often superficial, and the tone
Roo Phillips
Jun 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How Innovation Works by Ridley is a refreshing look at the reality of progress. Inventions, Eureka!, aha moments, strokes of genius, disruptive, even “since sliced bread” comprise pithy soundbites constantly employed to describe how someone changed the world, “and if you just follow my simple 3-step plan, you can too!” Not so says Ridley. He could not find one transformational innovation that was brought about by a single person. Rather, Ridley explores innovation after innovation, invention aft ...more
Dinu டினு
Oct 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great walk-through of innovations and things we have been taught are "inventions" but are in reality innovations, throughout history, and the conditions that enabled them. It explores how there have been in many instances competing or independently developed "inventions" to which history has only attributed credit to a "genius inventor", which is not the case. This is relevant even today where there are in many circles "hero worship" and the myth of the "genius inventor", which focuses on the ...more
Alexej Gerstmaier
May 08, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Innovation happens by creative tinkering - >trying stuff out

Innovation =/= invention

The state is bad at fostering/funding innovation

Europe/EU is innovation-phobic

Chinese are starting to innovate. Propensity to work 9/9/6 (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) helps. They don't have political freedom (which isn't necessary for innovation) but have regulatory freedom

Modern Humans are displaying features similar to domesticated animals (wtf?!)
Aliaksei Mukhachou
Exceptional book detailing past and present of integration of new solutions into our everyday life. I loved the story flow and the key messages. To the point that I am no longer seeing Brexit as all that bad - and that's saying something for a person who has been impacted severely negatively on the surface. Wide-reaching conclusions for policymakers, for entrepreneurs and for the career- mobile. ...more
Oliver Abrahams
Dec 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Couldn't recommend this book more. You will be wholly surprised and intrigued by the stories told in this book! ...more
Zain Punjwani
Dec 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was my first Matt Ridley book. His insights on innovation really make you think deeper on how we got here and the potential ahead.
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Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley DL FRSL FMedSci (born 7 February 1958, in Northumberland) is an English science writer, businessman and aristocrat. Ridley was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he received a doctorate in zoology before commencing a career in journalism. Ridley worked as the science editor of The Economist from 1984 to 1987 and was then its Washington cor ...more

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