Cambridge University is celebrating its 800th Anniversary this year. There are various ways of viewing its contributions to society. You could see it — as the university’s leading security expert Ross Anderson does — as 800 years of creative destruction.
If you want physical objects destroyed, the army can do that. As for badly-run companies, they get trashed when the economy goes into recession; the economist Joseph Schumpeter taught us that this ‘creative destruction’ is vital for progress as it clears away the deadwood and creates space in which new businesses can grow. And it’s just the same in ecosystems: from 1911, the USA put a lot of effort into stopping forest fires, but then discovered that although they saved individual plants and animals they were destroying the environment. A forest with a fire brigade is a sad old forest; a lot of plants from sequoias to proteas reproduce only in the aftermath of a fire.
Just as fire regenerates the forest, so a great university regenerates human culture – our view of the world and our understanding of it. We incinerate the rubbish. And Cambridge has long been the hottest flamethrower; we’re the most creatively destructive institution in all of human history. And big new things come from that. The ground we cleared made us the cradle of evangelical Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth, of atheism in the nineteenth, and of all sorts of cool new stuff since – including the emerging sciences of life and information…