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Publisher's Summary

Building on his national best seller The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley chronicles the history of innovation, and how we need to change our thinking on the subject.

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, poorly understood by policy makers and businessmen, hard to summon into existence to order, yet inevitable and inexorable when it does happen.

Matt Ridley argues in this audiobook that we need to change the way we think about innovation, to see it as an incremental, bottom-up, fortuitous process that happens to society as a direct result of the human habit of exchange, rather than an orderly, top-down process developing according to a plan. Innovation is crucially different from invention because it is the turning of inventions into things of practical and affordable use to people. It speeds up in some sectors and slows down in others. It is always a collective, collaborative phenomenon, not a matter of lonely genius. It is gradual, serendipitous, recombinant, inexorable, contagious, experimental, and unpredictable. It happens mainly in just a few parts of the world at any one time. It still cannot be modelled properly by economists, but it can easily be discouraged by politicians. Far from there being too much innovation, we may be on the brink of an innovation famine.

Ridley derives these and other lessons, not with abstract argument, but from telling the lively stories of scores of innovations, how they started and why they succeeded or in some cases failed. He goes back millions of years and leaps forward into the near future. Some of the innovation stories he tells are about steam engines, jet engines, search engines, airships, coffee, potatoes, vaping, vaccines, cuisine, antibiotics, mosquito nets, turbines, propellers, fertiliser, zero, computers, dogs, farming, fire, genetic engineering, gene editing, container shipping, railways, cars, safety rules, wheeled suitcases, mobile phones, corrugated iron, powered flight, chlorinated water, toilets, vacuum cleaners, shale gas, the telegraph, radio, social media, block chain, the sharing economy, artificial intelligence, fake bomb detectors, phantom games consoles, fraudulent blood tests, faddish diets, hyperloop tubes, herbicides, copyright, and even - a biological innovation - life itself.

©2020 Matt Ridley (P)2020 HarperCollins Publishers

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What listeners say about How Innovation Works

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Worthwhile for a Modern Thinker

He manages to bring together disparate locations and scientific ideas and put them into important human context.

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I’m hopeful

While some case studies are more interesting than others, the engaging ones really drive home Matt’s overarching point. It times you are certainly awed by human ingenuity and adaptation. While there is reason for pessimism, this book left me hopeful humanity can rebound and flourish in the process. I will say I wish there was more commentary on the politics of innovation and a deeper dive into both innovation specific policy and economic policy that helps or hinders innovation but this book was a good start.

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Best listen that I have had in a very long time!

This book is a must listen/read for all that care about how inovation works and how we can allow it to flourish. Its role in helping to deliver solutions and prosperity throughout the world. A better understanding of this process will allow us to help foster and encourage positive change that can do more to move real solutions and hope to more all over the planet.

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Matt Ridley is a good story teller

There were lots of interesting stories. I enjoyed this book start to finish. I will be buying gift copies.

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More Innovation.

More innovation & freedom is good. Less regulation is better. A good book detailing all the breakthroughs by innovation & capitalism. Well written and narrated!

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  • RickyF
  • 2020-07-01

Bad scholarship and bias that overwhelms his facts

Though the stories he weaves are interesting, there are significant issues with this book.

Bad scholarship: Babbage’s Difference Engine did not solve differential equations (as if any machine could in 1830). Instead, it solved polynomial equations using the method of differences (which uses addition only.) He talks about Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace as if she were Babbage’s peer. She was not. If you examine their correspondence, you see that her footnotes to the translated French article by the Italian, Luigi Menabrea, about the Analytical Engine, were greatly informed by Babbage, who was the world’s first computer programmer, unless you want to give that honor to Joseph Marie Jacquard for his punch card automated loom. If he screwed up this much on Babbage, what other errors exist that we don’t know about?

I agree that IP laws are often impediments to progress but to a small degree they serve a purpose. Unfortunately, today the rule making process has been captured by special interests around the world and ignores the public interest.

He uses a scattershot approach, picking and choosing what fits his hypothesis.

He poo-poos side effects of things like Roundup, which its owner Bayer just settled cancer lawsuits for $10.5 billion, or the water contaminating effects of fracking that pollute entire communities water supplies. In fact, the company he highlights in this endeavor, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, just filed for bankruptcy and the ecological devastation they wreaked will now be redressed by the public’s coffers.

He ignored the innovation in weapons which have had significant effects on humans during the past few millennia.

Textile technology missing. What is more basic than that besides food?

Building innovations missing

Bronze and iron age technologies ignored, very little attention to stone age tech.

Ancient Greek computational devices, like Antikythera mechanism, ignored

Mapping/surveying technology missing

The issue of complexity ignored

Fintech innovation is ignored

In summary, this book is a mere polemic, and poorly researched. Ridley deserves our scorn for this garbage.

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  • Pimpernel Sandybanks
  • 2020-09-21

As a story this is good, too much fiction

The fact gathering that supports this book seems to be done to support a narrative, rather than investigating genuine curiosity. I would recommend "Jump Starting America" and "The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation" in addition to this book for a more balanced and hard-fact based outlook (the research that went into either of those books was more substantial than the research for this one). This book aligns itself with a few common misconceptions secondary to the primary subject. Insofar as "how innovation works" this is a reasonably good study.

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  • Bill Bochynski
  • 2020-06-10

"Light" and fun, but "heavy" and valuable.

Lightweight, accessible, but significant.

Annnd...an economics lesson.

I will read this again!

Thank you.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Some Body
  • 2020-06-30

A fascinating, perspective changing book

This book dispelled a lot of the popular myths that I grew up believing about innovation, and forced me to re-examine some of my own beliefs and practices. It is rare and wonderful treasure of a book, full of fascinating facts and wonderful storytelling.

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  • Tyler J. Glaze
  • 2020-06-07

Fantastic and hopeful guide for the future

Ridley provides a framework for how innovation was achieved in the past and provides insight into what is holding back innovation in developed countries.

Another great book by Ridley that is packed full of historical and current factoids with philosophy peppered in too. One should read/listen immediately for the best effect because the topics are ultra current.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Rosemary
  • 2021-03-22

Lord Matt Ridley brings us together

Lord Matt Ridley explains, if we, the human race, adopts media literacy, we become closer to the universal mind, and progress in the larger world issues can occur. Matt argues that we need to see innovation as an incremental, bottoms up process that happens as a result of humans trusting each other, exchanging ideas as a collective whole.

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  • Boningo
  • 2021-03-16

Can't stop listening once you start

Narration is amazing. What I retained from the book is that innovation is 98% perspiration and 2% inspiration.

Thank you Matt Riley. This is a delicious book.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Mark Bruns
  • 2021-03-05

Probabl the most IMPORTANT book in the last decade

All innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs should listen to Matt Ridley ... particularly if those people, who are responsible for making the lives of billions just a wee bit better, are feeling a tad beleaguered, unappreciated or in any way slightly discouraged.

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  • R Webber
  • 2020-11-09

Great read. Super listen. Matt Ridley, yes!

I loved this book! It is not my kind of book. I prefer sci-fi. Great author, great reader. Have recommended it to many.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 2020-09-28

One of the best books I have read in a long time.


This book is focus on innovation, but extends from Stone age to he present. While narrowly focused it takes examples from stone age tool development, to modern search engines on networks. It supports its arguments with principals fr
om physics, chemistry, economics, computer science, genetics, history, psychology and more. This author is remarkably well rounded. Highly recommended.

1 person found this helpful