Innovation Results From Hard Work And Funding

In the Washington Post, Jon Gertner reviews a book about innovation by Matt Ridley.  One aspect of the book Gertner emphasizes is Ridley’s view that innovation is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration:

Ridley’s most important chapters, and his book’s most interesting, are where he calls attention to “surprisingly consistent patterns” that describe the process of making new things. Innovation, he tells us, is usually gradual, even though we tend to subscribe to the breakthrough myth….He also illustrates how innovation can be a matter of the right people solving the right problem at the right time — and that it often involves exhaustive trial-and-error work, rather than egg-headed theoretical applications. This was typically the case with Thomas Edison, who, as Ridley notes, tried 6,000 different organic materials in the search for a filament for his electric light.

Gertner’s criticism of the book is it underappreciates the contributions of government funding in that long process of trial-and-error exploration.

Thus, you won’t find a lot here about the development of the atomic bomb, which depended almost entirely on state largesse, or about the subsidization of renewable energy. Nor will you read much on the transistor, many early lasers or the photovoltaic solar cell, which were created under the auspices of Bell Labs, part of a government-authorized monopoly…. And in Ridley’s story about the origins of Google, you will not see any indication that its founders were helped in their earliest days by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Indeed, his book consistently plays down the influence of public funding in medicine, public health, personal technology, transportation and communications; it likewise minimizes — quite strenuously, and erroneously — the role of federal assistance in the development of natural gas fracking, which was kept alive by research investments from the Energy Department in the 1970s.

Reading this review, I realized in the 16+ years I have been writing this blog, I don’t think I have ever made a post that tied the lengthy process of creativity together with the importance of funding.

I have dealt with the topics separately. I have had a number of posts about how even creators often attribute their first big successes to some inherent stroke of genius or talent rather than to the 7 years of trial and error that lead to it.

I have also made posts about the importance of government and foundation funding to creative industries. I think the closest I may have come to directly tying both together are some posts I made about how people who have a support and expectations of relatively affluent families/friends are more able to participate in low paying internships/apprenticeships which can be highly important to networking and career development.

In any case, obviously innovation is a long term process which requires funding support and there aren’t a lot of entities willing to make that investment when it comes to creative arts.

By that same token, it shouldn’t be forgotten that businesses in general have benefited from government support of the basic research which constitutes the backbone of many of their products.

Perhaps all those calls for the arts to be run like a business should be answered by noting that contrary to all the garage origin stories of many famous companies, artists are often left to subsidize their own development. Additionally, the history of innovation of all types is one of government support.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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