The one sentence summary

Innovation is the main event of the modern age and we need to change our thinking on the subject.

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  • This book provides a full history of innovation in most fields, including energy, public health, transport, food, communication, and computing. It also covers less usual topics such as the invention of the dog.
  • The essential elements of innovation are that it is gradual, it is different from invention, is often serendipitous, is recombinant, it involves trial and error, is a team sport, is inexorable, it prefers fragmented governance, and increasingly means using fewer resources rather than more.
  • It is a bottom-up phenomenon that is the mother of science as often as it is the daughter (in other words, many innovators don’t understand the science of what they have created – that comes later).
  • Innovation cannot be forced upon unwilling consumers who aren’t ready or don’t want it. It increases interdependence and it does not create unemployment.
  • Big companies are bad at innovation because they have too many rules and too much bureaucracy. Multinationals have absorbed the mentality of planners rather entrepreneurs.
  • Innovation meets resistance if it is viewed as subversive, when it is demonized and delayed, when scares ignore science, and when governments and the law stifle it. Clergymen forbade their parishioners from eating potatoes in England as late as the 18th century for the magnificently stupid reason that they were not mentioned in the bible.
  • Innovation is a process of constantly discovering ways of rearranging the world into forms that are unlikely to arise by chance. It is the most important fact about the modern world but one of the least understood.
  • Innovation is a gradual process. The modern obsession with disruptive innovation is misleading. It is pretty much impossible to find an example of an innovation that was definitely invented by one person, and there is almost never a eureka moment. For example, there are at least 21 known inventors of the electric light bulb.
  • It is not an individual phenomenon, but a collective, incremental and messy process. It happens between, not within, brains.
  • Innovations happen when ideas have sex. They evolve through a process that looks awfully like natural selection. It’s the direct result of the human habit of exchange.


  • Between 1960 and 2010, the acreage of land needed to produce a given quantity of food has declined by 65 per cent. This is all due to innovation.
  • Intel’s famous tick tock strategy was to release a new chip every other year (tick) and fine-tune the design in the intervening year (tock).
  • Innovation in one sector can cause an increase in the cost of products or services in another sector if the latter experiences less innovation.


  • This is a long book that not everyone will finish.