Profiles in courage—at least the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and innovate successfully in a world of business and institutions that don’t necessarily welcome change.
In his latest foray into the world of invention and life-hacking, business journalist and trend-spotter Stevenson (An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, 2011) lauds “the pioneers, architects, and builders of a surprising and hopeful future,” most of whom have done their work by bucking received opinion and admonitions that something can’t or shouldn’t be done. One such pioneer, motivated by a desperately ill brother, pulled together the largest research lab for Lou Gehrig’s disease in the world only to discover that that research was far behind where it was supposed to be, so he became a “guerrilla scientist” devoted to challenging the status quo on drug discovery; his newfound resistance led to work in other maladies, such as Parkinson’s disease. Finding new medicines is damnably difficult work, all the more reason for difficult evangelists, hard to please and hard to argue with, to come to the fore. One Indian pioneer whom Stevenson profiles adapted network theory to the way in which hot lunches are distributed throughout the teeming city of Mumbai; the delivery people averred, “we don’t know management theories. All we have is decades of learning.” That learning is key: all of Stevenson’s case studies are wedded to the idea of constant learning, experimentation, and questioning, whether hacking government—a “stratospheric failure of modern democracies,” the author writes, is their “inability to provide a financial system that serves the majority”—or revolutionizing educational systems so that schools actually teach. Stevenson offers no overt formulas, but his case studies are suggestive of the ways in which a willful innovator can ignore obstacles and do whatever needs to be done, allowing for failure just as much as for success.
Solid reportage and inspirational reading for those who imagine they can do it—whatever “it” is—better.