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Harold Evans on the Spirit of Innovation

Sir Harold Evans at the Strand Bookstore in Ne...

Image via Wikipedia

Earlier today I attended a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts given by Sir Harold Evans entitled “The Spirit of Innovation”. During an extremely distinguished career, Evans has been, among other things, Editor of both The Times and Sunday Times (of London), Publisher of Random House and an author of several acclaimed books.

This lecture was chaired by Ralph Simon, co-founder of Zomba records and Moviso.

Click through here for links to the audio and video of the event.

In the lecture, Evans covered similar issues to those I’ve been reading about as part of my course, some of which I blogged about yesterday.

The crux of the lecture was the important difference between invention and innovation. Evans defines innovation as bringing an invention to use (i.e. commercialising it). He says that a scientist will have understanding, an inventor will have a solution but an innovator will have a universal solution.

An invention without innovation is a past-time. Essentially, many inventors are hobbyists, since an MIT study has shown that fewer than 10% of patents granted have had any commercial application.

Evans says that few scientists are able to turn ideas into a commercial impact. And historically, Britain has been very good at inventing but terrible at innovating. Coinciding with Channel 4’s broadcast of a series entitled Genius of Britain, focusing upon British scientific achievements from the past 350 years, Evans cited some of the great British inventions as

  • The electronic computer
  • The radar
  • Penicillin
  • The incandescent light
  • The microchip

However, British society failed to exploit these inventions, and they were ultimately superseded by American innovations that took the fame and fortune. Indeed, Evans mentioned that many Americans think Henry Ford invented the motor car.

Evans blames a fascination with the myth of the Eureka moment. Rather than a spark of genius, innovation requires active invention and improvement.This often means that investors overestimate the pace and underestimate the capital requirements of development, meaning that an inventor needs to have commercial acumen to succeed.

For instance, Edison was prone to self-mythologising about incandescent light bulbs, when in fact he had meticulously ran over 3,000 experiments. And then he had to convince people to use it, which effectively required a new electrical grid. Evans quotes Steve Wozniak as saying that getting an invention to marketplace is as important as the product itself.

Additional reasons for Britain’s relative failure include

  • Lacking the scale of big American companies in a big market protected by high tariffs and the Defence Department
  • Systemic opposition within Britain to both mergers and democratising ideas
  • Trade Unions – which Evans characterises as anti-meritocratic bodies looking to protect the status quo irrespective of change
  • Research and Development not being collaborative and systemic, unlike in America where people get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

However, Evans says that America is now struggling under its own weight. Bureaucracy and corporatisation are stifling innovation. Evans effectively championed bootstrapping when saying creative people should move away from bureaucracy to agile experimentation.

It was also mentioned at Israel is second only to Silicon Valley in the number of patents produced, and has more companies on NASDAQ than the entire EU. Evans believes this is down to a faith in technology to push things further, perhaps influenced by the compulsory national service Israeli citizens undergo.

The lecture was followed by a bizarre and disappointing question and answer session. There was only time for a few questions from the audience, due to Simon’s ludicrous format. Armed with a trusty PowerPoint slide, he read out several different forms of innovation, prompting Evans to recite rambling anecdotes tenuously linked to the topic. Simon then revealed a second PowerPoint slide, containing questions that Evans had largely answered in his lecture. Simon seemed unable to deviate from his format, and the session sadly petered out.

However, Evans’ final thought from his lecture has stuck with me. Genius is not enough; you need to go and do something.


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3 Responses

  1. Nice post, I was there and thought it poor, both in the terms you describe and in Harold Evans understanding of Innovation; a series of rambling, if interesting anecdotes. I think he sees innovation as great men stymyied but fumbling bureaucrats. He didn’t have a theory of technological innovation or a theory of social change and didnt answer the question what blocks UK innovation; which seems to go together.
    The link below is about personal democracy forum in the US, which is what I have been hoping the RSA would be trying to do. I think our problem in the UK is that we are concerned to build hierarchies, rather than innovate.
    Check live innovation brainstorming in the USA here;

  2. Hi Fred, thanks for taking the time to post. You’re right in that Evans didn’t really offer any solutions or examples of good practice outside of the generic inspiration/perspiration (though he did seem to recoil at the notion he was in agreement with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory).

    I’m not sure he was advocating hierarchies though – it seemed more that he was saying that commercialisation and market savvy are as important to success as the idea itself


  3. Simon,
    I think we do have a lot to learn from Innovation history and it would repay careful studying. Much as I love the anecdotes I would prefer a little more depth. I like Kondratieff long-wave cycle analysis and in recent years think that Shock of the Old has been interesting;
    American literature is a bit self-proselytising but I like Smart Mobs by Rheingold, his earlier Virtual Community is really good, here it is for free;
    Come to think of it there isnt a good one. I should write it!
    The point on recreating hierarchy is my own, I think that is what we Brits always set out to do as it is in our cultural DNA. I heard the two guys at the front at the RSA talking in that old Establishment way.

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