My recommended reading list for this summer includes 10 books with very different approaches to innovation. In some cases, these books take you inside the thought process of a top innovator, whether it’s a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (Elon Musk), a Hollywood filmmaker (Brian Grazer) or a Nobel Prize laureate (Alvin E. Roth). In other cases, these books give you insights into the fields and disciplines – such as cybersecurity, space exploration and artificial intelligence — that are shaping the future of global innovation.
Who Gets What – and Why by Alvin E. Roth
Markets are part of our everyday life, whether it’s landing a vacation rental on Airbnb, bidding for an item on eBay, or finding your future life partner in the dating pool. Stanford professor Alvin E. Roth, the co-recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics, explains the science of matchmaking and market design, pointing out how and why “matching markets” work. As Roth points out, these ideas about intelligent and effective market design are relevant for both business and government. Just another reminder that, for Silicon Valley start-ups, matchmaking should be top-of-mind when thinking about new products and new markets.
A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman
In addition to producing films such as “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” (starring Russell Crowe as brilliant mathematician John Nash, who passed away in May), Hollywood filmmaker Brian Grazer was also the creative genius behind the Emmy-nominated “24” TV series. So what has inspired Grazer? It turns out that he’s a fan of weekly “curiosity conversations,” which are a way for him to find out more about subjects or people that he knows nothing about. Any innovator can learn from this approach — it’s not enough just to have deep domain knowledge, one also needs the ability to be inspired by ideas from a wide range of different disciplines.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Elon Musk might just be the most famous innovator in America, if not the world, these days. If you want to get inside his head and see what makes him tick, this biography is a fascinating read. It turns out that Musk is just as driven and eccentric as you might expect him to be, working 23-hour days and reading up on Soviet rocket manuals in his spare time. Based on Musk’s unique experience starting companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, Vance suggests that he will come to be seen as an American innovation giant, in the mold of a Edison or Ford.
While books about Google are not quite as unique as they used to be, this one comes from the head of Google’s People Operations. Laszlo Bock explains how Google goes about finding the best and the brightest employees and offers suggestions on how to make any workplace more innovative. (One important concept: Only hire people who are smarter than you, no matter how long it takes to find them.) These ideas can be used when trying to attract employees to a new start-up, or just trying to max out the creative throughput in your cubicle farm.
Future Crimes by Marc Goodman
Cybersecurity has emerged as an important issue — not just in the tech sector, but also as part of the evolving national security debate. Goodman, a former “futurist in residence at the FBI” and the founder of the Future Crimes Institute, takes you to the front lines of the cyber wars, showing how hackers are subjecting the world’s computers and information to constant attack. If you thought that cyberattacks by North Korea and China are isolated events, think again: there’s a vast, worldwide group of people who are using technology in ways you’d never expect, making all of us vulnerable. In some cases, software has become “crimeware.” In other cases, wearable devices could become the subject of attacks.
Creative Schools by Ken Robinson
How will the schools of today prepare the innovators of tomorrow? There’s perhaps no one better on the planet to explain that than Sir Ken Robinson, one of the world’s preeminent experts on education and school creativity. He’s also the most-watched TED speaker in history. His TED video “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” has been watched nearly 34 million times on the TED website (and another 8 million times on YouTube), so it’s good to see that he’s back with more ideas about what he’s calling a “grassroots revolution” in school creativity.
Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes by Margaret Heffernan
Looking to introduce epic change and innovation in your company? You might be served by thinking in terms of innovation baby steps, says Margaret Heffernan. Small shifts, when well-executed, can have outsized results. That’s both instructive and inspiring — especially when trying to bring innovation to a large organization entrenched in the old ways of doing things. Watch Heffernan’s TED Talk on “Superchickens” — as she explains, trying to create a super company by staffing it entirely with “superchickens” could be a recipe for disaster. (Superchickens get to the top of the pecking order by pecking away everyone else.) In the same way, trying to create an innovative company by only focusing on super innovations may not turn out as planned.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
As you might guess, a “brief history” of humankind is not really all that brief – nearly 450 pages, with in-depth descriptions of biology, history and evolution. But it was a Mark Zuckerberg Book Club selection in June, and Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s concept of a “Cognitive Revolution” for humankind is compelling. Cognitive adaptations during evolution — such as the embrace of language — have made humankind “the deadliest species in the annals of biology” as well as the most innovative. And there’s potentially more to come given humankind’s embrace of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Best to start this book in June before the lazy, hazy dog days of summer.
Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo
We may be drowning in a sea of informational complexity, but that’s okay, according to Hidalgo, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab who is often considered to be one of the most innovative people in the world. As Hidalgo explains, there’s an important correlation between information growth and economic growth, and between economic complexity and national competitiveness. The book builds on Hidalgo’s earlier work on “The Atlas of Economic Complexity,” which ranked national economies based on their “complexity,” not on their annual GDP or per capita income.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Weir’s 2014 book, which has been described as “Robinson Crusoe in a space suit” will be hitting the big screens later this year as a Ridley Scott blockbuster starring Matt Damon as an American astronaut stranded on Mars. In much the same way as “Interstellar” launched public conversations about space exploration and the physics of deep space, it’s easy to see how “The Martian” could get people talking about Mars. In fact, NASA has been supportive of the book, seeing it as a way to build public support for additional Mars funding. As an added bonus, the book comes with a fascinating backstory, starting life as a series of self-published stories given away for free on the author’s personal Web site.