The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

You’ve got to read the excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book in today’s Wall Street Journal. Just released this week, his book is called The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. I have a lot of respect for his previous books, so I’m delighted to learn that his new book makes the same points as my 2007 book Group Genius.

Here are the key features of innovation, described in both of our books:

  • The stories we hear about genius inventors, like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, are always myths. Ridley and I both describe the real history of the light bulb, which involves lots of people way before Edison. (Group Genius, pages 110, 196)
  • “Innovation emerges from the bottom up,” I write in Group Genius  (page 16). I show that innovation emerges from self-organizing systems, and this is Ridley’s main point, too.
  • Ridley writes that innovation is “incremental” rather than “revolutionary.” That’s why I called one of my chapters “Small Sparks”: to emphasize that innovation doesn’t come from a big flash of insight. “Successful creators know how to keep their sparks coming in a process that unfolds over time” (Group Genius, page 97).
  • Ridley describes the historical research on multiple discovery, as I do on pages 192-193, with this example: “In the 1920s, numerous teams invented television in parallel.”
  • Ridley argues that patent protection is too broad and is based on the mythical view of the lone inventor. I make the same point on pages 176-224, especially pages 221-225: “Current policy favors linear, centralized innovation and blocks the natural rhythm of innovation”.
  • Ridley demolishes the idea that innovation comes from a linear process; this is the most important point of Group Genius  (for example, pages 158-159, “Beyond Linear Innovation”)

Ridley’s WSJ  excerpt is filled with great stories of real innovations. I come to the same conclusions, with some of the same historical examples, and also by drawing on the science of creativity. Inspired by my studies of jazz and improv theater, I think of creativity as improvisation. Group Genius argues that the most creative improvisations are non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and inefficient. Ridley has a bit more to say about the political and economic implications of this new, more realistic, understanding of innovation (for example, he concludes that government doesn’t need to fund scientific research). I have a bit more to say about how you can use this research to become more successfully creative, both on your own and in teams. It’s cool that Ridley and I come to the same conclusions from really different directions. If you like Group Genius, you really should check out The Evolution of Everything. (I’ll post a review after I’ve read the whole book.)

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

  1. Hello Keith, Agree with all your observations especially that creativity is a syustemic process involving emergence and so on. It’s one of the best metaphors I am aware of to describe creativity as a form of improvisation. Bravo. There is one thing I disagree with Ridley about however and that is that scientific research should be defunded. Maria Mazzucato’s marvelous work provides ample and convincing evidence both empirical and well reasoned that debunks that particular myth. See also William Janeway’s work on the three player game in doing business in the inovation economy. I’ll think you’ll find there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Ridley is wrong on that count. all the best, Phillip

    1. This is certainly a provocative claim! If you read the WSJ excerpt, you’ll see that Ridley cites several studies to support his recommendation (including an OECD study). I don’t know the research so I am agnostic on this…except that my tendency is to disagree, because I myself have received several federally funded grants from the National Science Foundation, so I’d like to think that government funding of scientific research is a good thing.

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