Summer is coming, which for some means fun and relaxation. For others, it means Instagramming your summer reading selection. These may not be mutually exclusive. With that in mind here are nine books covering the current business zeitgeist that caught our eye—and might catch those of your followers.
Innovation is a source of progress. So argues John Browne, in Make, Think, Imagine. The former head of BP makes an impassioned case for technology and innovation as a driver of prosperity. Even if there are teething problems with technology, progress through innovation is good for everyone in the end—right?
Maybe so. But we’re told ‘innovation’ is everywhere and moving super-fast. The word ‘innovation’ itself connotes new thinking. So, it seems ironic how often it is used. Or over-used, perhaps, on David Rowan’s evidence. Non-bull***t Innovation is an attempt by Wired’s founding editor to cut through the jargon surrounding innovation. In talking to entrepreneurs and inventors across the world, Rowan seeks out examples of real, transformative change.
In Loonshots, physicist and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall is similarly interested in how organizations can develop radical ideas. Steering clear of the copious BS written about how to build an innovative culture in organizations (see above), he instead focuses on organizational structure. Applying principles from the natural world about how phenomena—from forest fires to bird flocks—evolve, he points to the small shifts in structure that will enable organizations to nurture, rather than neutralise, breakthroughs. These leaps are in the end, presumably, what Browne would identify as the drivers of progress. But we can’t take their development for granted.
…and its discontents
Indeed, innovation is not something that comes without costs. The dangers of relentless progress are explored in two recent books. In Hello World, mathematician Hannah Fry points out that “we have a tendency to over-trust anything we don’t understand,” and that as a result, innovative algorithms created in opaque organisations are coming to play an ever-greater role in public life. It’s fine to rely on the good and the useful. But greater public awareness of the bad and the ugly sides of algorithms is needed. This is further emphasised by Meredith Broussard in Artificial Unintelligence. The book does not take aim at technological innovation itself, but at the blind faith that it is always the solution—an idea Broussard dubs “technochauvinism.” The implication is that such an approach to progress may create more problems than it solves.
Crisis? What crisis?
And indeed, problems are developing, as the rise in populist movements attests. There may be progress, but how well is it distributed? Oxford economist, Paul Collier, argues in The Future of Capitalism that the divides in many societies are becoming deeper—whether between rich and poor, rural and urban, or the highly skilled and the less educated. Collier argues that serious pragmatic steps need to be taken to resolve the economic—and ethical—missteps of capitalism. Joseph Stiglitz strikes a similar note in People, Power, and Profits. But he is more optimistic that the solutions lie in taming the current system, and puts a strong emphasis on traditional levers of progress, including education, the rule of law, and indeed productivity growth through innovation.
Some are not so sure that solutions even lie within the current system. Anand Giridharadas, in Winners Take All, is more zealous in his remedy. For him, the "winners" cannot be relied upon nor trusted to reform the system, and a wholesale overhaul is needed. If he is right, and a general upheaval is required, then Jared Diamond’s new book, Upheaval, has landed at the right time. The book’s subtitle, “How Nations Cope with Crisis and to Change,” sounds almost like a self-help guide for many nations undergoing a bout of political or economic turbulence. Diamond examines a set of case studies, from the Meiji Restoration to post-Pinochet Chile, of when various states have responded to crisis. One wonders if a few new chapters could be added by the time the paperback is released.