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Rejecting conventional connotations, two books urge readers to rethink innovation

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

Matt Ridley
416 pp.
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The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work that Matters Most

Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell
272 pp.
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Two new books—Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works and Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell’s The Innovation Delusion—reflect on society’s semantic satiation with “innovation.” Both find that the term has been reduced to a buzzword; however, from this shared starting point, they take distinctly different directions.

In How Innovation Works, Ridley aims to upend the notion that innovation emanates from a lone inventor. Although he finds innovation to be “the most important fact about the modern world,” he reports that what is popularly perceived as “invention” is really an extended innovation process—an evolutionary, as opposed to a revolutionary, process.

Just as DNA recombination often results in more-successful traits than those that arise from random mutations, so too, he argues, do innovations occur when humans mingle and exchange ideas, whether in cultural hotbeds such as today’s Silicon Valley or in the Renaissance’s wealthy city-states. Ridley maintains, however, that even in these incubators, innovation is a bottom-up, iterative process that is often the result of aftermarket tinkering by many users rather than the actions of the initial inventors. To support his assertion, he meticulously documents various case studies of innovation in domains ranging from public health to communications.

Invention may be the initial trigger for a new technology, acknowledges Ridley, but innovation happens as the initial idea evolves into marketable goods. To maximally benefit from science and technology, he argues that we must focus less on revolutionaries and more on the follow-on incremental tinkerers who substantially benefit from the unencumbered exchange of knowledge.

In stark contradiction to Ridley’s efforts to bolster the concept of innovation and save it from its success, in their book, The Innovation Delusion, authors Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell expose society’s Faustian bargain with it. In their opinion, strategies to boost innovation, such as emphasizing STEM education—which, they argue, often advance “the interests of universities and corporations” rather than those of students—have led us to a misplaced focus on innovation for innovation’s sake. Moreover, this misguided emphasis ignores what matters most in a thriving society: maintenance.

Vinsel and Russell note that they are “sick of hearing about what’s good for Silicon Valley, and what the innovating classes think is good for us.” However, as much as they dislike the innovation mindset, many of the maintainers that Vinsel and Russell celebrate could be considered innovators. They cite John Day Jr., for example, who pioneered the idea that computers could be used to manage maintenance and advanced the idea that “every corrective maintenance action should be balanced by six preventive maintenance actions.” Readers might also take Vinsel and Russell to task for not appreciating how innovation can supplant the need for maintenance—think cell phones versus phone booths

Although they diverge on many issues, both books posit that innovation is not only the purview of Silicon Valley. Vinsel and Russell, for example, quote the economist Robert Gordon, who noted that computing technologies “do not hold a candle to the technological advances between 1870 and 1970,” such as electricity, concrete, steel, automobiles, and airplanes. Quoting the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Ridley expresses a similar sentiment: “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.”

Both books also cite government regulation as inhibitory to the innovation process. Ridley, for example, uses numerous examples to show how intellectual property (IP) laws inhibit innovation. In particular, he notes how expansive regulation impedes innovation in areas such as the genetic modification of foods by disincentivizing the trial and error necessary for such technologies to advance. IP regulations are also limitations on maintenance, according to Vinsel and Russell. The “right to repair” is an ongoing fight in Congress, hampered by restrictive IP licenses that limit owners’ ability to fix property ranging from tractors to cell phones.

The titles of both books under review herein reveal that even those who aim to change our understanding of innovation are themselves unable to fully reject conventional definitions of the word. Were we consulted, we would have advised leaving “innovation” out of each title lest it perpetuate an outdated connotation. This criticism aside, both books are valuable in forcing us to look beyond uninformative buzzwords to appreciate what is truly valuable to society.

About the author

(1) Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies, Radzyner Law School, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Herzliya, Israel. (2) Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.