How We Got to Now is one of the 10 best books about innovation.

Today innovation is customarily associated with the digital revolution and Silicon Valley. Up to a point, that’s fitting, since how most of us in the world’s wealthy nations now live our lives has changed in major ways as a result of work done in what is generally called the tech industry. But innovation involves far more than contemporary technology, of course. In a real sense, today’s world is the manifestation of 300,000 years of human innovation, from the time homo sapiens first figured out how to use fire to make their lives easier.

This post was updated on August 24, 2022.

Innovation is a collective effort

In the popular mind, innovation comes from the singular genius of remarkable individuals. Today, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk come most readily to mind. In years past, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were the leading icons of invention. But genuine innovation almost never comes from individual effort alone. Edison himself famously said, “My so-called inventions already existed in the environment. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does.” Most of the significant advances the human race has achieved has been the result of collective effort. And that’s true even of the inventions we associate with Jobs, Musk, Edison, and Tesla. Moreover, most of what makes our life in comfort possible today was developed by people whose names have long been forgotten.

Innovation is about much more than technology

The three dozen books listed here cover a wide range of topics involving innovation. The computer industry and artificial intelligence are heavily represented. But you’ll also find excellent books about the social entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing life for millions around the world—and others that furnish historical perspective on the ways that clever people through the ages have changed the conditions in which we live our lives. I’m also including books that analyze the process of innovation itself.

Below I’m listing the 10 best books about innovation that I’ve read and reviewed here over the past decade. That list is followed by more than two dozen other titles that cast further light on the topic. In each of the two lists, the books are arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’s last names, and every title is followed by a link to my review. All these are nonfiction books.

10 best books about innovation

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan—Changing the world: the power of unreasonable people

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner—Before Silicon Valley, Bell Labs was America’s hub of innovation

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson—A brilliant new take on innovation

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee—The best book about artificial intelligence I’ve read so far

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy—The problem-solvers who won World War II

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy—Aravind: a social enterprise with impact to match Grameen Bank

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli—The new Steve Jobs biography is terrific!

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam—How to make humans smarter, stronger, and healthier

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries—The Lean Startup—an indispensable guide for entrepreneurs

The Founders: The Story of PalPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley by Jimmy Soni—A group biography of the PayPal mafia

The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb—An artificial intelligence skeptic paints a chilling picture of a future dominated by AI

Next best books about innovation

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta—Behind the scenes at an extraordinary company

The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything by Matthew Ball—A primer on the Metaverse that raises many questions

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin—The people who put Silicon Valley on the map

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass—Stanley Milgram put social psychology on the map

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton Christensen—The Innovator’s Dilemma: why do successful firms fail?

The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport—Four billionaires, private space companies, and humanity’s future in the cosmos

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler—Does technology promise humanity a bright future?

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl—Will robots run amok?

Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization by K. Eric Drexler—Nanotechnology and the future of our species

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford—Will robots create a jobless future?

Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin—Surveying the future of technology in the mid-21st century

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath—How to change things when change is hard

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik—The man who fathered Big Science

The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence by Amir Husain—Today’s artificial intelligence is transforming our lives, an expert insists

Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey—A colony on Mars? Really? An astronomy professor thinks so.

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson—A human-centered history of the Digital Revolution

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson—The Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs

Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs—The doctor who cured polio and saved millions

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen—The mind-boggling story of America’s top-secret military research

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick—The story behind “The Social Network”

AI 2041 by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan—A troubling but balanced view of artificial intelligence

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier—From two experts: The coming Big Data revolution

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough—The true (and surprising) story of the Wright Brothers

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant—The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?

Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World by Cade Metz—Teaching machines to make sense of the world

AIQ: How Artificial Intelligence Works and How We Can Harness Its Power for a Better World by Nick Polson and James Scott—Two data scientists explain artificial intelligence for the lay reader

Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money by Nathaniel Popper—The fascinating story of Bitcoin

Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age by David A. Price—The top-secret story  of the first digital computer

Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World by Beverly Schwartz—How social entrepreneurs are changing our world for the better

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman—Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone—The Jeff Bezos story, or why I hate

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone—Deconstructing the Jeff Bezos story

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone—Uber, Airbnb, and the sharing economy

Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern by Jing Tsu—How China learned to communicate with the world

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance—Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars (for real)

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever—An authoritative look at technology’s potential

2062: The World That AI Made by Toby Walsh—An AI expert worries about the robots of the future

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger—DARPA: inventors of Agent Orange, the M16, GPS, and the Internet

The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit—Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness by Craig M. Wright—What is a genius? Does IQ matter?

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu—The penny press, Amos ‘n Andy, and pop-up ads

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf—Biography of a genius: the man who invented ecology

For further reading

If you’re intrigued by the best books about innovation, you might also be interested in:

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