Bill Gates’ Reading List

Recently I’ve noticed Bill Gates appearing in places I wouldn’t usually have expected, such as a community school, Deptford Green, in London.

Here’s the interesting background on the school visit:

Getting Mr Gates to a community school in south London was also an impressive feather in the cap for the Speakers for Schools project, set up by the BBC’s Robert Peston – which seeks to get high-profile figures to talk to pupils in state schools.

Nick Chambers, director of the Education and Employers Taskforce which administers the scheme, told the school assembly that this unexpected visit from Bill Gates all came from a Friday night in November when English teacher Keely Wilson decided to apply for someone interesting to visit.

She wasn’t disappointed.

It’s pretty impressive for someone who’s made a big difference to the ‘developed’ world (through Microsoft) now to turn his attention to making a major impact on the developing world (through The Gates Foundation).

His website, The Gates Notes, gives some interesting personal insights. In particular, he has a section on the books he’s reading as well as (fascinatingly) his reviews of some of them.

Here’s his comments on the role that reading played for him while he was growing up:

When I was young, I read a ton of science fiction and biographies. I was interested in what it was like to be General Douglas MacArthur, President Eisenhower or President Roosevelt, or a great scientist like Newton or Einstein. I read a lot about the sciences, although the material available back then was not nearly as good as it is now. Now it’s mind-blowing, because online you have more and more great courses and other free material. My favorite physicist, Richard Feynman, recorded some lectures back in the 1960s that are really great at explaining physics and why it’s fun. I arranged to put them online so that anybody can just type into a search box, hopefully Bing, and watch them. They’re called the Feynman Messenger Lectures. I used to ask my dad a lot of questions that he couldn’t answer. Now, my son asks me questions like, “Why don’t we fall through the floor?” and “Why are some materials strong and some materials not strong?” We go online and satisfy our curiosity. I still read a lot of books too, and I write about some of them on my website. Recently I’ve read some important books about energy by Vaclav Smil and also by David McKay.

This struck a special note as I’ve previously written a couple of posts on the Feynman Messenger Lectures.

And here’s his review of Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’:

Like many other authors who write about innovation, Mr. Ridley suggests that all innovation comes from new companies, with no contribution from established companies. As you might expect, I disagree with this view. He also seems to think that innovation involves simply coming up with a new idea, when in fact the execution of the idea is critical. He quotes the early venture capitalist Georges Doriot as saying that as soon as a company succeeds, it stops innovating. A great counterexample is Intel, which developed over 99% of its breakthroughs after its first success.

Mr. Ridley describes the economy of the future as “post-corporatist and post-capitalist,” a silly throwaway phrase. He never explains what will replace all the companies that figure out how to make microchips or fertilizer or engines or drugs. Of course, many companies will come and go – that is a key element of capitalism – but corporations will continue to drive most innovation. It is a dangerous and widespread problem to underestimate the ongoing innovation that takes place within mature corporations.

In his quest to highlight exchange as the key mechanism in the success of our species, Mr. Ridley underplays the role of other institutions, including education, government, patents and science, all of which, especially since the 19th century, have played a central role in the improvements that humanity has experienced. Too often, when Mr. Ridley finds an example that minimizes the contributions of these institutions, he seems to think that he has validated the idea that exchange deserves all of the credit.

It’s insightful to hear his views on the role of innovation through established companies especially as this whole area seems in tumult these days. For example, the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca will be closing down some of it’s R&D centres due to their expense:

He said the job losses at AstraZeneca were a result of changes to the the R&D process that had become “more complex and much more expensive”.

“Increasingly there has been externalisation of R&D, collaboration with universities, with research charities, with academia… So that means that you don’t necessarily employ people [directly].”

Tying the above comments together, it’s clear that helping develop and nurture highly-networked ‘business and learning’ ecosystems will become increasingly important in the future – an inspiring and fascinating challenge!

See also in this context innovation clusters.

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