Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The eternal riddle of both science and daily life is never to be solved, but what is transcendent -says Matt Ridley in his new book on innovation- is how one thinks in this regard. The theory of evolution exemplifies the point in razor-edged fashion. Evolution does not tell us anything about the existence of a superior being, but attests to that if this in fact does exist, it does not entail (or abhors) central planning. Evolution does not have a predictable pattern but studying it allows one to entertain a distinct perspective about things. In the words of Alan Kay states: “a change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” If Mexico wants to break away from the pandemic quickly, the recipe dwells on creating conditions for innovation to flourish.
In How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, Ridley insists on looking further than the evident explanations and proposes that by adopting a creative manner of solving problems one becomes less dogmatic, especially recognizing that there can be more than one solution to a given problem and that making mistakes is part of the process and is not a failure.
“Innovation is the child of freedom and the parent of prosperity.” This is the heart of Ridley’s argument. Progress cannot be planned; contrariwise, innovation is always disruptive. “Innovation is obvious in retrospect, but impossible to predict.” This is due to that the process that produces innovation is not linear and always involves wrong answers and right answers that, in conjunction, advance knowledge. Underestimating people’s creativity and abilities acting on their own free will and without any coercion is the most frequent error of bureaucracies that claim to advance science, knowledge, and technology by means of design and central planning.
Ridley illustrates this point comparing the way that France, Germany and Great Britain moved forward in the XVII and XVIII centuries: while the continental governments engendered vast bureaucracies devoted to the furtherance of science, the English government was very slow to support such development, giving priority to the market as the decisive factor. This is how the Industrial Revolution ended up being English. The key here is that no one can anticipate, plan or predestine the course of the advance of knowledge. “It pays not to underestimate self-deception and noble-cause corruption: the tendency to believe that a good cause justifies any means.” This is as valid for science as it is for energy and economic growth.
Ridley demonstrates that progress does not begin in the laboratory to then move toward the commercial world, but often the inverse occurs: change takes place in factories, workshops and offices that are then rationalized and codified by scholars, making sense of their own studies. Darwin, says Ridley, proactively went in search of the advice of pigeon and horse breeders because they would understand, in a practical manner, what Darwin would later call “natural selection.” Ridley comes down somewhat hard on scientists, but his point of view engages a certain logic: entrepreneurs are nearly always conceived of as merely avaricious beings with no interest beyond money, when in truth the enterprise is the most successful problem-solving mechanism ever created. What is relevant is the system that permits one to innovate, this much more efficient in companies than in academia. “Innovation is not an individual phenomenon, but a collective, incremental and messy network phenomenon.”
The “messy” factor appears to be crucial in the innovation process. The notion of a “messy network” that produces a new order is fascinating to me in that it cannot be anticipated or planned: it is disordered in the sense that it depends on trial and error, on false beginnings that take shape based on experimentation. One learns by doing, with the creativity that permits promoting human inspiration to procure benefits for the collectivity.
The book’s subtitle sums up its entire argument: progress is made amidst freedom and it moves forward by putting alternatives to the test and frequently misfiring. Many things are understood in retrospect and it is rare for one factor to be defining for the outcome. There are no “eureka” moments that solve anything. Progress requires an environment of freedom and conditions that favor creativity: a mixture of public policies and a legal framework that promotes efficient markets and enables work. Ridley’s proposal is not heaven for any bureaucracy.
Politicians and bureaucrats always believe that their intentions are outcomes and that by the very act of wishing they can achieve whole transformations. Ridley convincingly establishes that progress cannot be planned, but instead comes about when propitious conditions exist for it, the most important being freedom to think and act. And this has never been truer than today, in the midst of this terrible recession.
Mexico’s National Council of Cience and Technology (CONACYT), the Mexican Education Ministry (SEP) and the Mexican government as a whole would reap great benefits by understanding how is it that the world moves forward given that the future of the country largely depends on what they do and, above all, of what things they impede.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof