There is No Solitary Genius



[   C  H  R  O  N  I  C  L  E   ]


We all believe readily in the idea of the solitary inventor, the innovator in his garage - in the image of William Hewlett and David Packard, who came together in the Californian villa of the Packard family, or Steve Jobs, who created his famous Apple computer in his parents’ garage in Los Altos. This representation represents our society’s tendency to set the innovator apart and, since the Renaissance, make him into a sort of hero. It is especially visible in the biographies of inventors.
Johannes Gutenberg for example, was shown as the person who brought us out of dark ages and conquered “ignorance and barbarism” (1) thanks to the printing press, which Alphonse de Lamartine underlined produced not only pages but also “thought” (2). With his semi-automatic looms, Joseph-Marie Jacquard was described as an individual who had to confront every danger to ensure that progress and modernity prevailed.

Today, this trend can be seen in our society’s ability to “create heroes” through its propensity to create awards, such as the Nobel Prize (awarded every year, as far as we are concerned here, to people “who have provided the greatest benefit to humanity” by their inventions), the Innovator of the Year prize, etc. While we may understand what lies behind this trend (it evokes and conveys the virtues of courage, effort and human genius, and even serves as an initiation story), it is nevertheless erroneous, as contrary to this idealised image, innovation is above all a collective endeavour.

Renowned innovators have always been immersed in networks of knowledge and a variety of actors, that act as a favourable underlying environment for the genesis of innovation. For example, Gutenberg surrounded himself with goldsmiths, whose skills in polishing and engraving were key in making printing plates and movable type, with carpenters, and with one person sensitive to the aesthetics of calligraphy... Similarly, depicting Thomas Edison as a solitary genius obscures the fact that he worked with brilliant colleagues, that he was well aware of the latest progress in science and technology (like Joseph Swan who in 1878 patented the incandescent light bulb) and spent a lot of his time networking with as many people as possible. Finally, closer to home, what would Steve Jobs have created had he not worked with the electronics and computer engineer Steve Wozniak and the designed Jonathan Ive, or had he not talked with the computer scientists Alan Kay, without the powerful team of Apple scientists and engineers, and had he not fostered a vast network of relationships? To quote Steve Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, innovation is above all “a team sport” (3), which raises the question: if we accept to see innovation as a collective endeavour, are we doomed to consider these institutional heroes as impostors? Definitely not!

By underlining what these renowned inventors owe others, we are in no way denying that their “genius” lies mainly in their ability to make use of a form of thought we have called “creative rationality”. Innovators are hungry for encounters, have the ability to network and know how to surround themselves with other visions of the world, other paradigms and other cultures, which serve to call into question their intellectual foundations and generate unique combinations of knowledge. This is a long way from the figure of the lone hero, armed with the sole power of his brain. On the contrary, his creative ability is expressed in his relationships with others.


(1) Delauney de Merville, Les Pionniers de l’industrie, Mégard et Cie, 1887.

(2) Alphonse de Lamartine, Gutenberg, inventeur de l’imprimerie, Hachette, 1867.

(3) Walter Isaacson, Les Innovateurs, JC Lattès, 2015.




Joëlle Forest

Doctor in Production Economics

Joëlle Forest is a university lecturer at INSA Lyon, where she teaches innovation. She is scientific head of the Gaston Berger Institute’s “Ingenious Engineers Chair” program, funded by Saint-Gobain.

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November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018

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