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How many lightbulbs does it take to change the world?

On Wednesday evening, RST and MAH took a group of students from years 11-13 to the 13th annual Friedrich Hayek lecture on Innovation at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The lecture was delivered by Viscount Matt Ridley (author of 'The Rational Optimist' and 'Genome') and was titled 'How many lightbulbs does it take to change the world?'. He spoke for an hour and then took several questions.

He used the 'device' of the lightbulb to argue persuasively that very little progress is due to a single 'lightbulb' moment and much more to do with evolution of ideas and collaboration between inventors. Although Thomas Edison is widely credited to have invented the lightbulb in the 1870s, it could quite easily have been invented by 20 or so other people at around the same time, all of whom had a firm grasp on the technology by the time that the big breakthrough was announced. In essence, it was 'ripe' for invention. He will not have endeared himself to Emanuel students and alumni, however, by arguing the same case for the world wide web. In any event, inventing something is the easy bit; innovating and getting the product to market where the real heavy lifting begins.

He is clearly an excellent speaker and the students got a flavour for what their time will be spent doing when they start their university education. He was able to draw on a wealth of experience and learning to put across a very persuasive case. In 1880, for example, it took about six hours worth of work to pay for an hour of artificial light (candles) as opposed to today, where it requires less than a second on the average wage to light an LED bulb for an hour. Such progress has been driven by innovation above everything else, he says, and as a free market advocate it is no surprise that he is resistant to government interference in business. Vested interests have held back innovation for far too long and he gave the example of the Hansom cab drivers who lobbied hard against the invention of the umbrella as to what their consequences are. 

Surprisingly, he is not a believer that competition between innovators drives growth and that actually it is collaboration amongst competitors that is far more likely to deliver much speedier progress and innovation.

Overall, the students will have learned much from listening to such an esteemed expert as Matt Ridley and hopefully he will have inspired some of the great innovators of the future.

Mr Tong (Head of Economics and Business)