The social life of innovation

I’m half way through and really enjoying The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. It was published in the US in 2012 and was a bestseller, but I’m not sure it was ever published here in the UK – it was a tweet from Tim Harford that alerted me to it. If that’s right, perhaps Penguin thought it was too American and nobody on this side of the Atlantic had ever heard of Bell Labs. Yet this is the organisation that employed Bill Shockley, John Tukey, Claude Shannon and many other brilliant scientists and mathematicians in the mid-20th century. When I studied at Harvard in the early 1980s one of my fellow-students, Kaye Husbands, had worked at Bell Labs, which is how I first came to learn about it.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

I’ll review the book at length later in the week. The question it immediately raises, though, is about the structure of innovation, a costly business. AT&T funded Bell Labs from its monopoly profit but its executives were well aware that its privileged position of a regulated monopoly meant Bell Labs had to serve public purposes as well as private profit, and to do so in a public way. This meant that, for example, the transistor technology was publicised and quickly licensed on reasonable terms to competitors – AT&T knew there would be an outcry if the company tried to keep that innovation to itself. An interesting history lesson for large technology organisations. Indeed, as John Kay often points out, sustained success for any business depends on its moral purpose as a social institution delivering benefits to everybody, not on maximising short term profit; and the very purpose of a tech business is innovation.

Of course, the AT&T monopoly was eventually broken up by the US authorities, but I’m not yet that far through Gertner’s account.