How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley
  • Title: How Innovation Works
  • Subtitle: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom
  • Author(s): Matt Ridley
  • Publisher: HarperCollins UK
  • Year: 2020-06-25
  • ISBN-10: 000833482X
  • ISBN-13: 9780008334826


“How Innovation Works” by Matt Ridley is a captivating exploration of the fascinating world of innovation and how it has shaped human progress throughout history. Drawing from a wide range of examples and historical anecdotes, Ridley delves into the various factors that drive innovation, dispelling common myths and misconceptions along the way. The book emphasizes the collaborative and cumulative nature of innovation, highlighting how countless minds and efforts converge to create transformative breakthroughs.

Ridley’s narrative challenges the notion of innovation as a linear and predictable process, instead portraying it as a serendipitous and often unpredictable journey. He delves into the concept of trial and error, emphasizing that many significant innovations emerge from a series of failures and the willingness to take risks. Ridley underscores the role of open and free societies in fostering innovation, where ideas can be freely exchanged and tested, allowing for rapid progress and improvement. Overall, “How Innovation Works” is an engaging and thought-provoking read that sheds light on the dynamic and complex nature of innovation, inspiring readers to embrace the spirit of creativity and curiosity in their own lives.

Book Review

“How Innovation Works” by Matt Ridley is a brilliant exploration of the fascinating world of innovation and the key factors that drive human progress. Drawing from a diverse array of historical examples and contemporary case studies, Ridley weaves a compelling narrative that challenges common misconceptions about innovation and sheds light on the intricate processes that underpin human advancement.

One of the central themes of the book is Ridley’s debunking of the myth of the lone genius innovator. Instead, he emphasizes the collaborative and cumulative nature of innovation, showcasing how innovations often build upon and combine multiple ideas from different sources. Ridley highlights the example of the steam engine, which is often attributed solely to James Watt. In reality, the steam engine’s evolution was a result of the collective efforts of numerous inventors and tinkerers over several decades, each contributing incremental improvements to the technology. This collaborative process of incremental innovation is a recurring theme throughout history, from the development of the airplane to the creation of the internet.

Ridley also delves into the concept of “ideas having sex,” where the cross-pollination of ideas and the exchange of knowledge lead to new and transformative innovations. He points out that open and connected societies tend to be more innovative, as they allow for the free flow of ideas and encourage experimentation. Ridley contrasts this with historical examples of isolated societies that stifled innovation due to rigid social structures and limited information exchange.

The book challenges the notion that innovation is a linear and predictable process. Ridley argues that innovation often arises from a combination of necessity, experimentation, and serendipity. He shares the story of the development of penicillin, which was a fortunate accident discovered by Alexander Fleming, who left a Petri dish contaminated with mold on his desk while he was away on vacation. This unplanned discovery led to one of the most significant medical breakthroughs in history, saving countless lives.

Throughout “How Innovation Works,” Ridley emphasizes the role of competition and the market in driving innovation. He contends that competition encourages companies and individuals to constantly seek improvements and efficiencies to stay ahead. Ridley cites the example of the smartphone industry, where intense competition has led to rapid advancements and ever-improving features for consumers.

The book also addresses the role of regulation and government in fostering or hindering innovation. Ridley advocates for regulatory environments that strike a balance between ensuring safety and allowing for experimentation and risk-taking. He provides examples of regulatory barriers that have stifled innovation in the past, such as the slow adoption of anesthesia in medical procedures due to skepticism and caution from medical authorities.

In conclusion, “How Innovation Works” is a captivating and enlightening read that challenges prevailing notions about innovation and presents a compelling case for its collaborative and incremental nature. Matt Ridley’s well-researched examples from history and contemporary times paint a vivid picture of how innovation is driven by the exchange of ideas, competition, and the willingness to take risks. The book is a call to embrace the spirit of curiosity and creativity in both our personal and professional lives, encouraging readers to recognize the power of innovation in shaping a better future. It is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the mechanisms behind human progress and how innovation continues to transform our world.

Word Count: 550

Target Audience

The book “How Innovation Works” by Matt Ridley is targeted at a diverse audience and is recommended reading for the following groups:

  • General Readers and Curious Minds The book is accessible to general readers who have an interest in understanding the processes and dynamics of innovation. Ridley’s engaging storytelling and relatable examples make complex concepts accessible, making it an enjoyable and thought-provoking read for anyone curious about how human progress and innovation are interconnected.

  • Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs Business leaders and entrepreneurs can benefit greatly from the insights offered in the book. Ridley challenges the notion of innovation as solely driven by visionary individuals and instead emphasizes the collaborative nature of innovation. By understanding how ideas can intersect and combine to create transformative breakthroughs, business leaders can foster a culture of innovation within their organizations and embrace the value of experimentation and risk-taking.

  • Students and Educators Students and educators studying disciplines like business, economics, technology, and history will find the book to be an insightful resource. Ridley’s use of historical examples and case studies provides valuable lessons on the evolution of ideas and technologies over time. Students can gain a deeper appreciation for the diverse factors that contribute to innovation and apply these lessons to their own areas of study and research.

  • Policy Makers and Regulators Policy makers and regulators can gain valuable insights into the role of regulation in fostering or hindering innovation. Ridley discusses the delicate balance between ensuring safety and encouraging experimentation, offering valuable considerations for those shaping regulatory frameworks in various industries.

  • Innovators and Technologists Innovators and technologists will find inspiration in Ridley’s exploration of the creative and experimental nature of innovation. By understanding the collaborative nature of progress, innovators can look to engage with diverse perspectives and ideas, fostering an environment where breakthroughs can flourish.

In summary, “How Innovation Works” is recommended reading for a wide range of audiences, including general readers, business leaders, students, policy makers, and innovators. Matt Ridley’s engaging storytelling, insightful examples, and thought-provoking analysis make the book accessible and relevant to anyone interested in understanding the mechanisms behind human progress and the critical role that innovation plays in shaping our world. The book encourages readers to embrace a culture of curiosity, collaboration, and experimentation, making it an inspiring and valuable read for those seeking to drive positive change and contribute to the advancement of society.