Book Colloquium

Fall 2020

Each semester the Center for Public Choice and Market Process (CPM) sponsors the Economics Book Colloquium, in which students and faculty meet to discuss interesting contemporary writing in economics. In Fall 2020, the EBC will be reading "How Innovation Works" by Matt Ridley. Registration is required.


Innovation is the main event of the modern age, the reason we experience both dramatic improvements in our living standards and unsettling changes in our society. Forget short-term symptoms like Donald Trump and Brexit, it is innovation that will shape the twenty-first century. Yet innovation remains a mysterious process, poorly understood by policy makers and businessmen alike.

Matt Ridley argues that we need to see innovation as an incremental, bottom-up, fortuitous process that happens as a direct result of the human habit of exchange, rather than an orderly, top-down process developing according to a plan. Innovation is crucially different from invention, because it is the turning of inventions into things of practical and affordable use to people. It speeds up in some sectors and slows down in others. It is always a collective, collaborative phenomenon, involving trial and error, not a matter of lonely genius. It happens mainly in just a few parts of the world at any one time. It still cannot be modeled properly by economists, but it can easily be discouraged by politicians. Far from there being too much innovation, we may be on the brink of an innovation famine.

Ridley derives these and other lessons from the lively stories of scores of innovations, how they started and why they succeeded or failed. Some of the innovation stories he tells are about steam engines, jet engines, search engines, airships, coffee, potatoes, vaping, vaccines, cuisine, antibiotics, mosquito nets, turbines, propellers, fertilizer, zero, computers, dogs, farming, fire, genetic engineering, gene editing, container shipping, railways, cars, safety rules, wheeled suitcases, mobile phones, corrugated iron, powered flight, chlorinated water, toilets, vacuum cleaners, shale gas, the telegraph, radio, social media, block chain, the sharing economy, artificial intelligence, fake bomb detectors, phantom games consoles, fraudulent blood tests, hyperloop tubes, herbicides, copyright, and even life itself.

About the Author:

Matt Ridley's books have been shortlisted for six literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters). His most recent book, The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture, won the award for the best science book published in 2003 from the National Academies of Science. He has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist, and is the chairman of the International Centre for Life, in Newcastle, England. Matt Ridley is also a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Discussion Leeder:

The Discussion Leader will be Dr. Beatriz Maldonado, Direct of Student Programs for the Center for Public Choice & Market Process and Associate Professor of Economics here at the College of Charleston. 


Colloquium information: 

  • The EBC is open to any interested College of Charleston students; it is not limited to economics majors.
  • The EBC meets every two weeks, for 1 hour and 15 minutes, on Wednesday from 3:00-4:15 via Zoom.
  • Participation in the colloquium is voluntary, and no course credit is given for participation. We request that you only sign up to participate if you expect to be able to attend all of the sessions in the schedule below.
  • All students should be prepared to discuss all of the scheduled chapters for each meeting. The format will be an open discussion but focused on the topics raised in the assigned readings. Importantly, this colloquium is not intended to be a lecture. Ideally, the professors will do little talking.
  • Participants receive their copy of the book free from the CPM.
  • Food and drinks will be provided at all the meetings.
  • This semester the Colloquium will be limited to 15 student participants. 


All meetings are Wednesday from 3:00-4:15 via Zoom.


September 2

  • Introduction: The Infinite Improbability Drive
  • Chapter 1: Energy
  • Chapter 2: Public health

September 16

  • Chapter 3: Transport
  • Chapter 4: Food

September 30

  • Chapter 5: Low-technology innovation
  • Chapter 6: Communication and computing

October 14

  • Chapter 7: Prehistoric innovation
  • Chapter 8: Innovation's essentials

October 28

  • Chapter 9: The economics of innovation
  • Chapter 10: Fakes, frauds, fads and failures

November 11

  • Chapter 11: Resistance to innovation
  • Chapter 12: An innovation famine
 How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley


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