Ender's Game for Innovators

Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. - H.G. Wells

In the science fiction novel Ender's Game, a future society facing the existential threat of alien invasion sets up an academy to train their young people to defeat the threat.

Our civilization likewise faces an existential threat. But unlike the the society in the novel, we are not taking it seriously.

The threat is lack of innovation. Human flourishing is, and always has been, driven by innovation[1]. Without innovation, we are locked in a zero-sum game, a Hobbesian war of all against all. Though we have avoided catastrophe through innovation time and again throughout history, the past is no guarantee of future success. Building and maintaining an innovative civilization requires work.

What if we take this work seriously?

To get more innovation, we need more innovators. The prevailing belief is that innovators have a magical quality that allows them to do what most cannot. But innovation is just solving complex problems, almost always in collaboration with others. This is a skill. Like any skill, it can be trained through practice.

This training is not likely to happen in our current education system, which was intended from the beginning to train factory workers and bureaucrats [2]. It is as anti-innovation as a system can be. Efforts at widespread reform of the existing system have failed consistently for over 100 years.

But this is no reason to be discouraged. We do not need to rebuild the entire system to achieve a 100x increase in our civilization's innovative capacity. Because innovation scales. A tiny number of people can produce innovations that benefit millions. We don't need everyone to be an innovator. Even 1% of us innovating would utterly transform our world.

Let us say that 1 in 10,000 people today are innovators[3]. Does it seem crazy to imagine we could rise to 1 in 100 with the right opportunity and training? Reaching even that modest level would be a 100x increase from the status quo. Our current challenges — like cultivation of healthy soil and food, or transitioning to sustainable energy — would yield quickly to such an innovative society.

Is such an increase possible? The only way to find out is to try. As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

[1] Matt Ridley's book How Innovation Works is, in my view, the most well-written case for innovation. A quote from his interview with Naval gives a good definition of innovation: Innovation is the business of turning a new device into something practical, affordable and reliable that people will want to use and acquire. It’s the process of driving down the price; it’s the process of driving up the reliability and the efficiency of the device; and it’s the process of persuading other people to adopt it, too. Thomas Edison captures this point very well. I don’t think he used the word “innovation” much—he used the word “invention”—but he is mainly an innovator because he’s not necessarily coming up with original ideas. He’s taking other people’s ideas and turning them into practical propositions. My own definition: Innovators make things better for the rest of us, at scale.

[2] John Taylor Gatto's An Underground History of American Education is a great exploration of how the system came to be.

[3] It is hard to come up with precise numbers. 1 in 10,000 is 800,000 in a population of ~8 billion. This seems like the right order of magnitude to me. Only 80,000 seems too small, and would only strengthen my argument if true. While 8 million is roughly equivalent to the total number of science and engineering graduates worldwide, thus too high.