I deliberately talk about innovation rather than invention, because I think we've talked a lot about inventors, about brilliant people who come up with bright ideas that change the world. I want to talk about innovation, which is the process by which a bright idea is turned into something practical, reliable and available and affordable for ordinary people. And that's a long slog and it's a lot of hard work and it's often more important, more difficult than the process of coming up with a good idea in the first place.
Welcome to the Knowledge Project podcast, I'm your host, Shane Parrish. This podcast sharpens your mind by helping you master the best what other people have already figured out. If you're listening to this, you're not currently a supporting member. If you'd like a special member, only episodes access before anyone else. Transcripts another member only contact. You can join at F-stop Blogs podcast. Check out the Schnitz for a link today. I'm speaking with Matt Ridley. Matt, the author of How Innovation Works The Rational Optimist, The Red Queen and several other books related to Science and Human Progress.
He's also a biologist, newspaper columnist and member of the House of Lords in the UK. This episode touches on how Matt came to write books about science, the age old battle between viruses and humans, rational optimism, the difference between innovation and invention, the myth of great people, the role of trial and error, why pockets of innovation happen in geographic concentration and the effect of social media and seeing other people's point of view. It's time to listen and learn.
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Make people better. Find out more at admired leadership. Dotcom, not so happy to have you on the show, Shane.
It's great to be with you. Thank you for inviting me. Can you tell us in your own words how you came to write about science?
I did a PhD in biology in the 1980s and well, I enjoyed it. I didn't have quite the same stamina for going deep into small subjects that my colleagues did and I spotted this. But at the same time, I had more enjoyment out of writing. Up my thesis than my colleagues did, and it just it so the switch went in my head and I thought, you know what, my my skill, my talent, my interest might lie in writing about science rather than doing science.
So I gave up thought of getting a Nobel Prize and set my heart on a Pulitzer instead. I have not got a Pulitzer, you know. Not yet. Not yet. Exactly.
I'm glad you set your sights on writing. You're an amazing writer. And before we get to innovation, the subject of your latest book, I wanted to briefly touch on some of your earlier work that left more, I guess, really formative impressions on me and the Red Queen, which laid out the age old competition between viruses and humans.
I mean, it sounds like trench warfare where advantages are slight and short lived. I'm curious as to what you see as the biggest lesson from that book and what role it should play in creating policy.
So the Red Queen is a character in Alice through the Looking Glass who runs but never gets anywhere. The faster she runs, the more she stays in the same place. And that's a very good description of a lot of what happens in evolutionary processes. That is to say, the arms race between parasites and their hosts, one side changing their genes, the other side trying to unlock those genes and so on. But it's also quite a good description of all sorts of aspects of human life and how the world works.
And I found very, very interesting writing that because I was mainly trying to explain sex, the evolution of sex, which is in the first place, something that seems to have evolved to foil parasites, but later on, in the form of brightly coloured male peacocks and things, seems to be all about a sort of arms race between males to seduce females and things like that. So it's a general theme that runs through sexual evolution. But it also, of course, describes quite a lot about how our own human world works, how society works, how sexual politics works as well.
It's a theme that has cropped up again and again in the back of my mind ever since I wrote about it. It was a fascinating experience digging deep into the origins of those ideas.
Historically, at least when it comes to viruses and sort of our approach to them, it is very trench warfare, the short lived advantages, even when we get antibiotics or something.
But the way out of that in the past has always been asymmetry of weaponry. Is that possible when it comes to viruses and bacteria and are human?
Yes, I think on the whole, we will win battles against most pathogens because we have so much possibility of ingenuity now of human ingenuity to help us defeat them. We've only totally extinguished one major human disease and that smallpox. But boy, is that an important one. It's probably maybe the biggest killer of all. Certainly when you think that it was responsible for killing the vast majority of the people who lived in the Americas when smallpox arrived with European contact.
But we've reduced polio to almost extinction. We've done the same with a lot of other diseases. We're pretty well wiped them out. We're getting on top of malaria and HIV, etc.. Now, you're absolutely right that we we gain 100 yards and then we lose 50 yards because the disease mutates or it finds a way around the issue, etc. But quite a lot of diseases, particularly those carried by insects or through water, have kind of given up on Western civilization.
They can't get a toehold in our populations. They're still around in poor countries. But, you know, cholera, typhoid, all these terrible killers from the past, yellow fever, malaria in the in the Western world are not able to to much to mount offensives anymore. And that's because we've cut off we've broken the cycle, we've cut off the way that we got infected, the one way that pathogens do get into us that we haven't been able to cope with so far is through the nose.
There's something like 200 different types of virus that cause the common cold. The average child gets seven to 10 colds a winter. We are just a very tempting target for respiratory viruses as we are discovering this year. On the whole, they stay mild because they want us going around, going to parties, going to work. They don't want us sitting at home because we're not going to infect anyone if we stay at home. There's a sort of common interest there in not hurting us too much so that it's this sort of game theory way of seeing the battle between viruses and people that I think is really interesting.
I appreciate that view. The rational optimist helped many, including myself, see the rationality of optimism. I mean, it seems like a lot of our beliefs are self-fulfilling. If we define a cynic as someone who is smart and has lost hope, that becomes how we see the world and not only the cynics and pessimists not create, which is the topic of this interview, but they often prevent others from creating because attitudes and beliefs are often contagious, inventing and innovating require us to be irrationally optimistic.
How do you see the role of social media, which collectively does an amazing job of exposing us to cynics and pessimists for your increasing lack of optimism since you wrote the book?
Well, I am worried about the effect social media is having on society. It clearly has polarised us. It's clearly accentuated the effect whereby good news is no news and bad news is news. But it's not that's not new. We've always been like that. We've always stressed the negative, not the positive. I mean, I was fascinated when I wrote that book to go back, you know, 100 years, 200 years and find that the bestseller of the day was nearly always a pessimistic tract.
You know, whether it's Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798 or the decline of the West in the turn of the 20th century book saying, yes, things have got better on the whole, but they cannot possibly go on getting better were the generation that sees the deterioration setting in. So there's nothing new about our generation saying that there's nothing new about the dominance of pessimism in our everyday discourse about the world. We're not so pessimistic about our individual lives. Interestingly, as we are about people in the planet generally, certainly social media seems to have focused, amplified that to some degree.
And that is, I think, an uncomfortable thing. Media technologies tend to do that. I mean, I think printing and the role Martin Luther played, I mean, he's the greatest entrepreneur of printing. He was the best selling author by a mile of his day. And on the whole, he's going around telling everyone that they're going to go to hell because they're all corrupt and sinful and so on, he's not telling a good news message. And then radio played a big role in the rise of the dictators playing on our pessimism in the 1920s.
I have a feeling that media technologies can be dangerous in that respect. But would I give up social media? Would I give up the chance to have rampant social contact with my chums all over the world and share jokes and find out how their family is? No, I wouldn't. I think, you know, for a lot of young people in particular, it's a godsend. It's a boon. So we've got to learn to live with these technologies and not let them overwhelm us.
I suspect imagine the world right now without all the social tools we have available to us to stay in touch with people as we physically distant and we sort of hibernate in our houses.
Well, of course, you could turn that round and you could say if we didn't have all these social contact tools, then maybe we'd never have locked down, you know, we just couldn't do it, in which case because the epidemic would have been worse. But to some extent, as it were, the existence of the video conferencing and social media and telephones and email and all that kind of stuff makes it possible for governments to say, right, we're going to lock down the entire society, healthy people and all, which has never really been done before.
I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about innovation. And one of the topics of your book is the difference between innovation and invention. Can you expand on that? Yes, I.
I deliberately talk about innovation rather than invention because I think we've talked a lot about inventors, about brilliant people who come up with bright ideas that change the world. I want to talk about innovation, which is the process by which a bright idea is turned into something practical, reliable and available and affordable for ordinary people. And that's a long slog and it's a lot of hard work and it's often more important, more difficult than the process of coming up with a good idea in the first place.
And there are innovations that changed the world dramatically, which don't actually depend on any invention, things like container shipping, which had an enormous impact on global trade by drastically cutting the cost of shipping goods overseas, which didn't involve any invention of a lot of a new technology at all. It just involved a sort of change in the way we organize our ships. And a guy called Malcolm McLean gets most of the credit for that in the 1960s in the US, the emphasis on the more collaborative trial and error slog of innovation rather than the lonely genius idea of invention was something I was trying to get at was quite a nice, funny story that I tell in the book, which illustrates the point, which is a Beevor and a rabbit looking at the Hoover Dam and the beaver says to the rabbit, No, I didn't build it.
But it is based on an idea of mine.
And of course, getting from a simple beaver dam to the Hoover Dam requires a lot of innovation that isn't invention.
We tend to believe that there was this golden age where individuals invented things and now we have teams. But your book, I mean, it clearly dispels that notion. It's always been people standing on the shoulders of others and going just a little bit further with their ideas or even executing on the ideas and the combination of those two things you need. You need good ideas, but they're necessary and not sufficient.
How do you see the role of individuals versus teams?
Yeah, well, to some extent I'm trying to debunk the idea that lonely geniuses are what count in the world of innovation. We tend to hear people say things like the reason a big population can be more innovative is because there's more chance of the being a genius. I don't think that's the way it works. I think what happens is that people share their ideas, exchange their ideas, collaborate. And what really counts is how well people are communicating with each other, not how clever they are as individuals.
And to some extent, I'm trying to get away from the this word creativity, which tends to imply that a special sort of juice runs in the vein of inventors that doesn't run in the vein of ordinary people.
But if you if you look at the careers of people like Thomas Edison or Jeff Bezos or talk to any great innovators today, they all emphasize the importance of trial and error, failure of getting things wrong and starting again. And they also emphasize the importance of collaboration. For me, the nicest story that illustrates this is the contrast between Samuel Langley and the Wright brothers to two different teams trying to create the first powered airplane in 1983. And Langley is very well connected.
Head of the Smithsonian Institution and astronomer gets a huge government grant to build an airplane, goes off and does it in secret because he's so clever, doesn't want other people to steal his ideas and his airplane goes flop into the Potomac after twenty feet. Ten days later, on an island off the North Carolina coast to humble bicycle mechanics from Ohio with no university education succeed where Langley failed. And they did so because they were prepared to be collaborative and do a lot of trial and error.
They'd been doing hundreds of experiments with gliders and kites for years. At this point, they used wind tunnels. They'd communicated with people all around the world, particularly a guy called Octave Chanute in Chicago who was a sort of node in a network of people thinking about flight. And he had been drawing on the ideas of a guy called Lawrence Hargrave in Australia who had invented the the box kite, which is basically the sort of principle that helps you build a pipeline.
In effect, the point is that the Wright brothers were standing on the shoulders of people, but they were also collaborating with people and they were doing experiments. They did innovation right. In a way that Samuel Langley did it wrong. I would argue the nice footnote to that story is that the Smithsonian Institution didn't want to give the Wright brothers credit for being the first people in the air for decades afterwards. And they had on display Langley's plane, which had been modified so that it would work after the event.
But they were finally eventually persuaded to put the Wright brothers plane in the Smithsonian instead.
Do you think that delusions helpful, that people this way, people grow up thinking that they individually can make a difference, like they can solve cancer, they can come up with a vaccine, and it is a delusion about individuals versus team. But I wonder if it's helpful.
Yes, but I think the delusion that's unhelpful is that you need to be specially you need to be a special person to do this again. Going back to the Wright brothers, there's a wonderful quote from the guy who took the photograph on the day they took off. He said they were the working boys I ever knew. And so getting across this point that actually all you really need is an open mind being prepared to do a lot of hard work, not minding if you fail the first ten or ten thousand times.
And these are characteristics we could all have. So one of the one of the things I hoped to to get people to think is that innovation is incredibly important. It's incredibly rewarding. It'd be wonderful if for any of us if we were able to achieve a significant innovation. It's something that that is actually available to all of us is not something that is this special preserve of certain people. I was actually just recently told by an Italian friend a wonderful story about a garage mechanic in Argentina who very recently invented a device for safely delivering babies that have got stuck in the birth canal.
And it's a very simple, very clever device. This is a guy with no medical knowledge of any kind.
It's just a nice story to remind us that, you know, you don't have to be special to contribute.
Yeah, I like it a lot. And one of the things I want to come back to, you sort of said that it involves a lot of failure, which is trial and error. And that's akin, I guess, when it comes to humans, to artificial selection, more so than natural selection, which is just random variations were choosing variations and we try them. And if you do what everybody else does, you're going to get the same results as everybody else.
And that means a lot of failure, specifically in our day and age of sort of public failure. So you have to be I think increasingly you have to be able to fail in public. If you want to innovate, can you take that further and expand on the implications of failure?
Yeah, Jeff Bezos is interesting on this because he talks about the importance of swinging and missing. And if you're not swinging hard enough and missing, then you won't succeed in a big way. And the story of Amazon is you can tell it. I tried to do this in the book. You can tell the story of Amazon as a series of disastrous failures. You know, they they got all sorts of stuff wrong in the early days. They then they bought companies in the dotcom boom, which turned out to be flops and went bust.
They tried to get into the toy business and it didn't work. They made mistake after mistake. But every time they were just doing enough experiments so that one or two things would work and they were able to continue. And of course, eventually they became the biggest company in the world.
It is vital to fail. Thomas Edison said. I haven't failed. I've just found 10000 ways that don't work.
The difference between him and the 20 other people who invented the light bulb around the same time. Is that he was prepared to put in the slog of testing 6000 different types of plant material before settling on Japanese bamboo for the filament of his light bulb, which would last a long time, whereas the others weren't prepared to do quite so much failure, as it were. So that doesn't mean, of course, that every failure.
Is simply a step towards success, and I write in the book about failures and fakes and frauds that do happen in the world of innovation and charlatans, get away with them for a while and then eventually discovered, you know, we have to keep our wits about us here. We can't expect that just because we're failing. We're eventually going to succeed. One of the great things that America brought to the world of innovation, in my view, is a relative tolerance of failure compared with most European countries.
The the fact that you've started a business and it went wrong was actually quite often a good thing in the eyes of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. As long as it hadn't gone wrong too spectacularly or too often, at least it showed you you were trying and you had learnt something from the failure.
It's a it's a lesson that that we need to get across to to to kids these days, because quite often they're brought up to think that, you know, that we must protect them from failure at all costs. And I'm not sure that that's a wise thing to do.
How do you think parents should instill that lesson in their kid? Like, how do we as parents try to bring up our kids in a world where failure is somewhat inevitable and you have to have you build up these muscles for it, too, as you go along? Ride isn't the end of the world if you fail or you fall down.
Yeah, it's not easy and it's quite, quite often a trope in a movie or something, you know, pick yourself up and carry on is a feature that we all have to learn at some point. I've certainly tried to tell my own kids. Yeah, you did hopelessly badly at that thing. But that doesn't mean you're a bad person. It means all the more reason to try again at something else or in a different way. And you might well be much more successful if everybody is trying different ideas.
To what extent are insights inevitable?
Well, I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of simultaneous invention. I wrote about it in the book drawn upon the ideas of Kevin Kelly, who wrote a book called What Technology Wants about how technology seems to decide what's going to be invented next by somebody. As I said, there were 21 different people who came up with the idea of the light bulb in the 18 70s. There's even more people who came up with the idea of the search engine in the early 1990s.
You rerun the tape without Sergey Brin meeting Larry Page, without Thomas Edison, and you still get light bulbs, you still get search engines. That makes it sound like innovation is totally inevitable, that people are totally dispensable. And of course, that can't entirely be true because we'd have had lightbulbs hundreds of years before or something like that. But it does appear that the comes a moment when technologies are ripe, when the the combining technologies that come together to make a new technology have reached the point where it's sort of inevitable that people will do so.
What fascinates me is how few of those transitions we can see coming in advance. So, again, tech search engines, it looks when you're looking backwards from here, it looks unbelievably obvious that search was going to be a really important part of the Internet, that whoever cracked it and got us the best search engine would make the most money. I think the search engine is probably the most useful innovation of my lifetime. I use it every day.
But in the 80s were people writing about the coming role of search in the nascent Internet, actually know very few people see it coming and even the people who invented the search engines didn't really think of it in those terms.
I mean, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who invented Google, thought they were cataloging the Internet. They didn't think they were inventing a search engine to start with. So there's a strange asymmetry here between the inevitability of certain innovations when you get to a certain point and yet their extraordinary unpredictability as you're moving forward. And, of course, if it's inevitable that something's going to get invented. Let's say in the next few years, it's inevitable that something's going to be invented.
I can't tell you what, because it's unpredictable, but it will in retrospect, be inevitable. Then all the more credit to the person who actually goes out there and gets there because they're in a race, you know, Beethoven didn't have to worry about somebody else writing the Ninth Symphony at the same time as him. So there's a curious thing about inventors and indeed scientists. I mean, I wrote a biography of Francis Crick and he once said this.
He said, if if Jim Watson had been killed by a tennis ball, I don't think I'd have discovered the double helix of DNA. But somebody would within a year or two. And that makes him all the more impressive because he and Watson were clever enough to see that this discovery was ripe and ready to go and grasp the opportunity when it came.
Can you expand a little bit on the we talked about this a bit earlier on the idea versus execution phase and to what extent they're they're valuable to society and which is more valuable?
Well, I tend to take the view that we overvalue the idea and undervalue the execution, the the the turning of the idea into a practical innovation, because we put you know, we put statues up to the people who discover the basic principle of the first prototype. But we then don't put statues up to the people who. Build a business around making that device cheap, you can you can you think of a of a sort of monument to somebody just because they reduce the cost of something, whereas, in fact, if you look at, say, the history of electric lighting, it's come down spectacularly.
So it's ludicrously cheap to light your house now compared with 100 years ago or 200 years ago. And that's an innovation that is extraordinarily valuable.
I mean, the led light that we all use now, which is both long lasting and very low energy, but produces very good, reliable light, is the result of a lot of people, some in Japan, some in Europe, some in America, working incrementally over many years to to perfect white led lighting. And basically, we don't any of us know any of their names, but they have had an enormous impact on our lives. We make a fetish out of talking about the person who invented the first light bulb more than 100 years ago.
I've already talked about Thomas Edison, but actually the innovators still working on a technology like that are just as important.
Yeah, I think that's definitely true. And they're sort of like the unsung heroes of the of the world, right?
Yes, I think that's true. To give an example of my favorite example of an unsung hero in the book, I write about the insecticide treated mosquito net, the bed net that keeps mosquitoes away from you while you're asleep, and which is far, far more effective if it's being treated with insecticide. And this is the technology that reversed the increase in malaria. Malaria was going up until 2003. It's now going down as a cause of mortality in the world, going down pretty steeply.
And it's entirely due to this, but not entirely. But it's nearly all due to this technology. It's more effective than antimalarial drugs, more effective than draining swamps or spraying mosquitoes. So I said to myself, this is a really good technology. It's quite low tech. It's quite simple. It's quite cheap. It's very effective. Who invented it? You know, where it come from.
I traced the story back to a sort of type written document from 1983 in Burkina Faso describing a very well designed experiment that a Frenchman named Frederick Detriot and his colleagues did. And I got in touch with Doriot in retirement and said, can you tell me how this came about and what what happened? The experiment was had unbelievably strong results. It showed that a mosquito net is quite good at keeping you from being bitten. An insect, such mosquito treated mosquito net is very good and an insecticide treated net with tears in it with holes in it, which in practice they often will have, is also very good.
So it doesn't actually matter if the thing gets a little bit damaged over the weeks and months, which was a really important discovery. Nobody's heard of Doriot. He never got the Nobel Prize should have done. In my view. I don't think he ever became rich. The whole thing was done on a non-profit basis. You know, if if I achieve one thing, I put his name on the map.
You mentioned in the book that innovation allows us to work with each other. Can you expand on what you meant by that?
Well, I think the great theme of human history over millennia is that we become more specialized in what we produce and more diversified in what we consume. So compared with a self-sufficient farmer trying to, you know, grow all his own food and make all his own machines and so on, someone like that has to work a huge number of hours to produce, not a very high standard of living because they're only consuming what they produce. Whereas today, most people work, whatever it might be, eight hours of the day at something terribly specialized, you know, they're not making everything they need.
They're just doing one thing. They're making a podcast or whatever it might be.
Then by selling that to other people, they then supply all their needs and they then go off and spend the rest of the day consuming what other people have created for them, whether it be a movie or a meal or whatever. So actually, we're setting up this network where we all work for each other and a tiny, tiny fraction of your effort ends up making a big contribution to other people's wellness.
There's a lovely essay that I often go back to called I Pencil, written by an economist named Leonard Reid in 1958.
It's written by a pencil and the pencil is trying to understand its own origins. How did it come into the world? And it's researched it and it's discovered that it's made of wood and it's made of graphite and it's got paint on the outside and the razor in the end and so on. And so it traces the origin of these materials and it discovers that the wood came from a tree that was cut down in Oregon by a lumberjack who was drinking coffee at the time and using a chainsaw, which was made by somebody else.
And the man who was who found the coffee was contributing and so on. There's an enormous network of people went into manufacturing this one pencil. And yet not one of them knows how to make a pencil. Not even the person working in the pencil factory, they just because they don't know how to cut down a tree or grow coffee, so when you start to see the world in this way. It makes it clear what a fantastic collaboration is going on the whole time between us through the medium of exchange, through me doing what I'm good at and you doing what you're good at and us sharing the results on a massive scale.
It's a magnificent piece of collaborative, distributed intelligence that we've achieved this way.
It's remarkable feed of humanity and a lot of ways. Yes.
And just to to make the story even funnier, in a way, when I first started thinking about this, about the US getting more specialized in what we produce so that we could be more diversified in what we consume. I the penny dropped when I was reading a wonderful book called Second Nature by a guy named Haim Ofek, who was an academic. And I wrote to him and said, this is absolutely fantastic, this idea. Can you tell me if you've written anything else about it or where you got the idea and he wrote back?
You know what? I think I got the idea from reading your book, The Origins of Virtue.
And I said, well, I don't think it's in that book. And he said, well, I suppose it's not really. And, you know, my point is we were collaborating to produce the idea, which was greater than the sum of our contributions. And I daresay other people have had the idea. I'm not trying to claim sole ownership of it, but but it was quite a nice example of exactly the point we were making.
I think in a way that's true. Right. And when you communicate something to somebody else, it's almost like you're trying to copy DNA and there's copying errors, which is the error and how you understand what the other person is saying. And sometimes those are positive and sometimes those are negative. But in that case, it sounds like that copying error, the receptivity error and changed how he thought about the idea. And he got something out of your book that you didn't explicitly write, but it was because of your book that it was it was there.
And actually, that's probably a better answer to your question about failure. You know, it's not a failure, but it is an error. And that has to be as long as there's a degree of randomness in the errors, then natural selection will go to work. I mean, one of my favorite quotes which I got from Dan Dennett is from a French philosopher by the name of Allah who said in the early 20th century, when you think about it, a boat evolves in a Darwinian fashion because boats that don't work sink to the bottom of the ocean and boats that are well designed don't.
And so people who make boats copy the designs that didn't sink to the bottom.
So next time you get on an airplane, you think that unlike a biological organism, this airplane is being built by an engineer. Right. By an intelligent designer?
Well, has it because that engineer was copying a design that someone else did with a few modifications and improvements, and he was copying a design that was made by somebody else and so on. Back to the Wright brothers. In that sense, they you know, the airplane and the boat really have evolved. It's not a metaphor. It's what's actually happening to them.
It's sort of digital. I mean, there seems to be a lack of a visible lack of innovation anyways. And why does innovation seem to regularly work in some fields like digital and my phone and not on others like, say, testing for a virus?
Yeah, I'm very intrigued by this. We've lived through a period of extraordinary innovation in digital, in software, in computers and communications. But we've actually lived through a period of stagnation with respect to innovation in, say, transport. Our grandparents had the opposite experience. Know, my grandparents were born at the turn of the 20th century, that was well after the telephone.
They had the telephone throughout their lives, but they had almost no other communications and computing improvements that reached them before they died. But in the 1960s, I've had the opposite experience. But sorry, but they also had extraordinary changes in transport.
You know, they were born for the motorcar and the airplane and they died with the man on the moon and rockets in the air and supersonic jet fighters and all sorts of weird stuff, helicopters, everything in my lifetime. Well, the 747 was invented when I was 11 years old. It was still in service until a few months ago. We've not got flying cars, jetpacks, routine space travel, all the things we were promised in the 1950s. But we have got incredible changes in computing and communications.
Now, why is that? In some sense, it's it's obviously a technological possibility. You know, the invention of the silicon transistor has had enormous consequences in one field, but not in the other. And the technologies of transport, the internal combustion engine and things like that have come up against certain diminishing return limits. That, by the way, we're expecting to break in the next 10 years. And I'm a little skeptical about whether we will. You know, the contrast between the two is is is quite striking.
I don't fully understand why it is. To some extent we have. Made it difficult for innovators to work in other fields, we put too many regulations in the way, too many obstacles, too many costs. So, for example, we've been unable to come up with new designs for nuclear power stations for several decades. That's because licensing a new design for nuclear power station would cost billions under the present licensing system. So nobody bothers to even try.
In the end, it's just regulation that gets in the way there. And there are other reasons. But if you think, you know, I was thinking the other day if somebody had come up with a an idea for a point of care bedside diagnostic device of a portable kind to use for detecting viruses 10 years ago, then we could have had it by now.
But just imagine if that person had said, oh, I can't face three, maybe four or five years trying to get it licensed and going through enormously expensive trials to prove that it's safe and so on and effective. I think I'll go off and invent a video game instead. I suspect one or two people did that, you know that to some extent the digital world has sort of sucked people away from other areas of innovation and we may want to rebalance that.
By the way, the message of my argument that we had transport innovations in the 20th century and then in the first half of the 20th century and communications innovations in the second half is that the first half of the 21st century may not be all about computers and communication may not be all about A.I. It may be about biotechnology, for example. And I suspect it will be.
Yeah, I'm optimistic that a whole bunch of people after this grow up and one want to get into this field. I mean, we've seen a lot of innovation in financial industry, which also is highly regulated. So it makes me a bit sceptical as to the the role of regulation and how that plays into things. Obviously it does. You also want the winners to come away winners. And increasingly we seem to want people to win, but not too much.
I'm curious as to what policy implications that U.S. government should be thinking about to foster innovation within their societies.
This is a very difficult question, and I don't think anyone's found the magic bullet in terms of government policies that will deliver innovation to a growing society. The main thing is to get the obstacles out of the way, whether it's regulatory obstacles or or other obstacles to innovation, just to to clear the pitch for the innovations to have a free run. That feels to me the most important thing governments can do, picking winners and saying, I want this technology to be developed by such and such a date, has a pretty awful track record and is likely to end up by the losers picking the governments.
In other words, you know, the wrong people end up getting the grants and the subsidies because they're very well politically connected rather than because they have the best plans. I think the way to solve that problem is to dangle a prize in front of entrepreneurs and say if you invent. A solution to this problem, you will get a reward, the reward needn't be a cash lump sum. It could be, for example, and advance market commitment. The Gates Foundation did this with a vaccine for pneumococcus, saying if the pharmaceutical industry could come up with a vaccine for this disease, which kills children in poor countries, then don't worry.
Although it looks unprofitable to invent such a thing, we will make sure you get properly rewarded by topping up the price you could charge effectively. And that worked very well. And essentially, we've done something similar with vaccines in this epidemic. I mean, we've you know, governments around the world have said, look, if someone can come up with a vaccine for covid-19, we will buy, you know, 40 million doses, 50 million doses, whatever it is that is worked to produce a huge race among different companies.
And the great thing about that is that the the governments are not picking the winners. They are saying we will be there picking some winners, but then they don't have to decide in advance which of these technologies for producing a vaccine will work. And as a result, it's very interesting, it has incentivized a new technology to come of age, that is to say, messenger RNA vaccines of the kind that Moderna and biotech were exploring before this. And had they tried very hard and it raised a lot of money and they were working on this and they hit a lot of dead ends and failed and tried again and found a workaround for some of their problems and so on.
But there was no guarantee they would ever make their shareholders money or solve the problems or produce solutions to cancer or infectious disease. And then along comes this pandemic. And suddenly the price of these contracts from government has been just what they needed to to break through. So I think the prize approach is is to be explored in the future as a way of incentivizing innovation. It starts with the longitude prize in in 18th century England when the government said we really don't want ships being wrecked all the time on the silly because they think they're in the middle of the Atlantic.
If somebody can work out a way to measure longitude as well as latitude, then we'll give them a lot of money. And the problem was solved unexpectedly by a humble clockmaker from Yorkshire, by the name of John Harris, who said, All you need is a good clock so you can know what time it is in London. And you don't need to look at the stars or the complicated mathematical calculations. And they were very reluctant to give him the prize, but actually they did in the end.
I'm curious as to what other variables you see government have levers on.
They would foster innovation other than sort of prizes and setting direction.
Obviously, the the main stuff is to make sure there's plenty of R&D happening to some extent to fund it, because after all, government takes a big chunk of our money off us. So it'd be a shame if none of that money went back into things that encourage innovation to make sure that there is good educational opportunity and to foster openness and freedom. You know, in the end, it all boils down to freedom, the freedom to exchange ideas, the freedom to fail and start again, the freedom to change your mind, the freedom to invest where you think it's right to invest, the freedom as a consumer to express your preference for one new technology rather than another.
You know, for example, Google set up this company called Google X that tries wacky ideas to see if they will make exciting new products. And some of them have been dismal failures, which is fine and others have been successes. Technologically, I'm thinking of Google Glass, the the technology whereby you can see inside your spectacles. I don't know what the stock market's doing or what the weather forecast is or something like that. It was a brilliant piece of technology and it worked really well.
And they put it on the market. Nobody wants to buy.
It just turns out it's not it's not what people want. Not for two and a half thousand dollars anyway.
Yeah, a lot of a lot of that could be just timing. Right. And at the end of the book, I think you had this great line that summarize this, which was I think its innovation is the child of freedom in the parent of prosperity.
That's right. That's what I say. Innovation explains all prosperity over the last three hundred years, really nearly all anyway. And it's clear that it is the consequence of letting people free to exchange their ideas. It's not the only thing that matters, but it is an important feature.
One of the curious things for me is that it seems to be that innovation is geographically. Concentrated, I mean, for the last 50 years, it's been, say, Silicon Valley in California, and that seems to be coming to an end right now. And before that, it was Victorian Britain. And then, you know, before that it was Renaissance Italy. And at some point it was probably ancient Greece and China.
Why does it seem to happen only in one place at a time, this bushfire that breaks out for a number of decades in one place and then breaks out somewhere else? It really baffles me, actually, because it's not immediately obvious what's going on here. I mean, you can you can come up with explanations for why California was so extraordinarily innovative, the the the way you could.
Float companies and retain control the amount of defense spending at Stanford University, the freedom, the sunshine, the number of immigrants, you know, there's all sorts of explanations. The general point you can make in this applies to renaissance Italy and ancient Arabia and ancient China and so on as well, is that city states tend to be innovative, that that independent, relatively small political units that are very vigorous traders with other places tend to be places where a lot of innovation happens.
Britain's moment in the sun was because it was part of an enormous network of free trade, and that's because people will meet each other for the first time. Ideas will therefore meet each other. Profits will be made to be invested in things, incentives will be available and a freedom to decide what to do. You know, most of humanity has spent most of the last few hundred years living under regimes that told them what they can do and can't do most of the time, you know, whether it was in an empire or military state or whatever or a feudal state before that, it's extraordinarily rare for people to have the freedom to to act as merchants and investors and entrepreneurs anywhere that.
Allows that to happen, will get results. I was looking the other day at a to sort of index of prosperity in the countries that came top in their continents for the last 10 years in terms of the measures of prosperity, we're all open free trading country, but quite small ones. You know, Mauritius is the most prosperous economy in Africa, for example, Botswana is second, Israel in its part of the world, Denmark in Europe, you know, Chile in South America and so on.
So it's part of all that. I think basically the city states, where does it come to an end?
If you look at what happened in Holland, the Netherlands after their golden age in the sixteen hundreds, when they were by far the richest and most prosperous, successful part of the world, eventually they spent more and more money kind of on on on themselves and on debt and. If this is beginning to sound familiar, then it's meant to I think civilizations get get get sort of greedy and self-indulgent in some sense and start investing their money in their expertise and their interest, not in the kinds of things that led to entrepreneurial innovation, but the kinds of things that that lead to overspending and overborrowing.
And then for a while, you can keep going on financial engineering for a while, but it seems to run out eventually. The other way it comes to an end is when some dictator comes along and says, right now I'm in charge and I'm going to tell everyone what to do and I'm going to not let you trade. So, for example, in China a thousand years ago, the song Dynasty was a time of very developed, decentralized economy, with merchants relatively free to decide what they wanted to do, what they wanted to invent, extraordinarily innovative time.
And then it's followed after a Mongol interregnum by the Ming Empire, which has the opposite approach. Basically, the mandarins tell the merchants whether they can leave town or not, how much stock they must hold in their houses, whether they can trade abroad or not. That's not a recipe for prosperity.
Yeah, that's definitely not. And we can't predict the sort of like pockets of geographical concentration in advance.
I think that that's probably a fool's errand. But when they pop up, we can definitely foster them and encourage them.
Let's hope somebody does pick up the ball and run with it, because, you know, for example, China has been relatively free economically, but relative, but very unfree politically in the last few decades. I think that's now changing. I don't think it's very free in either respect. And so I don't see it leading the world in prosperity for an awful lot longer.
I wonder, interestingly, how that changes if hypothetically you can steal the innovations of other people with impunity, you don't necessarily need to be the creator of the innovation to benefit from it.
Well, there's always this problem that the country that most innovative gets very angry about other countries nicking their stuff. There's a fascinating period in history. Soon after the American Revolution, when Americans were engaged in rampant industrial espionage to try and steal the secrets of Britain's industry. And they sent all sorts of people over to prowl around pretending to be preachers when in fact they were making drawings of the insides of factories and things. Of course, we have a similar experience with Chinese attitude to intellectual property.
More recently, my view on the whole is that you shouldn't worry about it. You should, if necessary, sell the stuff to them, because if you can keep ahead, if you can use your advantage to be smarter, there's no reason you can't just maintain your advantage indefinitely. You know, when other countries are playing catch up, that's fine. That's just creating a market for you.
Yeah, in a way, it's good, right? Because if you're starting out, you want to copy the best of what other people have and start from there and then not recreate the wheel from scratch and innovate on top of that.
Yeah, catch up. Growth is is a well recognised phenomenon. A lot of the East Asian economies, you know, in my youth, Japan was famous for making cheap copies of stuff that Europeans made. Well, that didn't last long. Soon it was making by far the best stuff. Exactly.
And it's to the world's benefit that they start from a higher starting position or higher baseline, if you will, in some ways, even though economically that could have consequences.
Well, you know, we have to get away from zero sum thinking here. Everybody, you know, the prosperity of another country is not a problem for you. It just means that some rich consumers out there prepared to buy whatever you're good at selling. And the whole point of the Riccardo principle is the principle of comparative advantage is a brilliant concept, is that, you know, it doesn't matter if you're if somebody else is better at you're making everything, then there's still going to find it easier to make the things they're best at and buy the rest from you.
So there's always going to be something you can you can sell to another country, however prosperous they become.
I'm curious as to why you think that we default often to zero sum thinking instead of growing the pie and an abundance?
Well, I think it's because biologically zero sum thinking did make sense in many cases. That's to say, you know, ten thousand years ago, there's one woman available to marry in. Encampment, you've got twice as many cattle as I have. You get the woman, I don't that's a zero sum game.
And so in that sense, we've spent millions of years thinking that your gain is my loss. It's only in the last hundred thousand in some ways that the world trade seems to be on a massive scale with the division of labor and the collaborative system I described earlier, it's more like the last 10000 years. It's only then that we've had to get our heads around intellectually around the idea that someone else's gain can also be your gain. It's not, on the whole very common otherwise.
There are examples, biological examples of mutual care. For example, mating I mean, to people mating to produce babies is a you know, is not a zero sum game.
Yeah, I like that. I mean, one of the defining features of humanity is that we can overrule our sort of evolutionary instincts and some of these ways through thought and where a lot of other animals don't seem to be able to do that. Actually, I don't think any other animal can do that.
Yeah, Steven Pinker said I can tell my genes to go jump in the lake. Exactly. And it seems to me that we we live in a culture of abundance. And it would be great for society if we started to shift to growing the pie instead of dividing the pie or and I think that that would be a huge advantage for people. Yeah, I agree. You thought the invention of the Internet would sort of lead to social media and leaders to sort of all seeing each other's point of view because we'd have access to all these diversity, different points of view in different apertures and different lenses into the world, and that we would somehow see the world more clearly or see through the eyes of other people.
It hasn't turned out that way. Why do you think that is?
You're right. I was pretty utopian about this 20 years ago. I thought, you know, now it's you don't have you don't just read one newspaper. You you go online and you find all sorts of people saying lots of things.
Do you think that's got a point? I thought of it like that. And that does happen. You know, I mean, I try and make a point of doing that, not just reading the people I agree with, but I have to say it's a relatively rare experience. And I'm I'm more and more struck by how people are inside echo chambers now. And they don't even know your you know, if you're not in their bubble, they don't even know what you're saying.
You know, there was a very interesting remark by a journalist I read this morning who said, you know, when I left one newspaper and went to work for those people, assumed I died because they never read that other newspaper.
So but, of course, that's you know, newspapers are old media.
Why is social media making that a stronger phenomenon? I don't fully understand it. It's something to do with the fact that it's interactive, that that that you you look for tweets, likes responses.
And you get them by reinforcing your own prejudices, not by stepping outside your bubble and saying unpopular things or indeed saying moderate things, one of the problems with social media is that the stronger the view you express, the more likely it is that it will be amplified. If you say, oh, I know. I think there are two sides to this question on Twitter. On the whole, everybody ignores you.
Yeah, no, nobody wants to hear that. I think one of the interesting things about this is that we're unable to find people just like us that feed on our sort of subtle thoughts and show us that we're not alone. And eventually they become extreme as we surround ourselves with with people who feel and think the same thing.
Well, I think there's a definite tribalism here, you know, where this is part of an instinct that goes back to to the rainforest.
Are there ways that we can counter that, do you think? Yes, I think something similar happened with radio in the 1920s. As I mentioned, radio played a big role in the rise of the dictators, and yet people had invested just as much utopian hope in it. I mean, some of the things written about radio when it was first invented are extraordinary, you know, saying this is going to result in world peace because everyone's going to hear each other's point of view.
We're never going to have a war again. Well, that didn't work out. And people like Hitler, Mussolini used radio. Very extensively to reinforce the prejudices of their of their followers, and yet you and I don't think of radio as a source of evil in the world today. So it is possible to tame these technologies, to work out ways of living with them, to to come up with cultural norms that. Undo the bad stuff, and I have a feeling we're already doing it.
I mean, if you just look at the sort of the way the really nasty trolls, I don't think get the same. Traction today, as they did 10 years ago, I might be wrong.
Do you think that's because we're learning to adapt as individuals?
Yes, I think we adapt as individuals, but we also negotiate mutually acceptable norms and rules and guidelines as to how to behave.
This evening is very interesting in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, talking about how we became less violent. And, you know, in the end, it all boils down to this, this sort of model proposed by Norbert Elias that in medieval society, killing someone because they offended you was sort rather admirable thing to do, rather. And then 500 years later is nothing like as admirable it's despised. And you pick that up quite quickly as you're growing up and you think, oh, well, then I won't kill people because otherwise I'll get despised.
I want people to like me. Adam Smith makes this point actually in his theory of moral sentiments. You know that in the end it's the impartial spectator who is looking at us from the outside who are thinking of all the time. And we we calibrate our behavior to what we know works or doesn't work in our society.
I think that's a really interesting place to sort of wrap up this interview. One question I do have, though, is if you could give everybody a message about innovation, what would it be?
What would you tell the world?
I would tell the world that innovation is unbelievably important. It's by far the biggest story of the last 500 years. It's the reason for optimism about the next 500 years. It's infinite. I think this is probably what I'd tell people, that there's no reason we can't innovate indefinitely, if not infinitely. People say, well, how can that be? We'll run out of resources? And I'll say no, because half the time these days, we're innovating to use fewer resources.
The led light bulb uses one quarter as much electricity as as the compact fluorescents it replaces. So actually, I don't see why we can't go on innovating to advance each other's welfare. Infinitely, and if you think how far we've come in the last 200 years, imagine what the world will be like in the next 200.
Thank you so much. That's a phenomenal point to leave this on. I really appreciate you taking the time today. Thank you. I really enjoyed it. Hey, one more thing before we say goodbye, the knowledge project is produced by the team at Furnham Street. I want to make this the best podcast you listen to, and I'd love to get your feedback. If you have comments, ideas for future shows or topics or just feedback in general, you can email me and Shane F-stop blog or follow me on Twitter at Chainey Parish.
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