Fostering innovation

MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte’s article Creating a Culture of Ideas may be one of the most fanciful things ever written on the subject of invention. It’s a paean to diversity:

One of the basics of a good system of innovation is diversity. In some ways, the stronger the culture (national, institutional, generational, or other), the less likely it is to harbor innovative thinking. Common and deep-seated beliefs, widespread norms, and behavior and performance standards are enemies of new ideas. Any society that prides itself on being harmonious and homogeneous is very unlikely to catalyze idiosyncratic thinking. Suppression of innovation need not be overt. It can be simply a matter of people’s walking around in tacit agreement and full comfort with the status quo.

As nice as all of that sounds, it’s about as far wrong on a factual basis as it could possibly be, considering that the nations that have produced the greatest technical innovation, and this is measurable by patents, have been those, like Japan, that do in fact pride themselves on the harmony, homogeneity, and order of their societies.

Innovation is much more a consequence of coherence in the culture of ideas than of diversity, and more often than not simply carrying the technical status quo one step further in the direction it’s already heading.

Access to information, more than anything, is the key in my book. To test these theories, conduct a thought experiment on the Manhattan Project: what were the respective roles of expertise and diversity, communication and teamwork, and could you have accomplished the same thing with a panel of ordinary citizens of diverse backgrounds.

I don’t think you could.

4 thoughts on “Fostering innovation”

  1. All those German scientists who helped the Manhattan, Gemini, and Apollo projects didn’t exactly come from the world’s greatest cultural crossroads, either.

  2. Actually, they did — those German scientists were mostly Jews. Outsiders by definition.

    I’d argue that while the Japanese do engineering refinement better than almost anyone, they do first order invention — radical breakthroughs — very poorly. I can’t think of a single major scientific discovery or invention to come out of the country: the walkman was a great idea, but it’s not on the same level as the transistor that made it possible.

    It’s the radical breakthroughs that require, among other things, a willingness to step on other scientists’ toes. But I don’t know if the gap is cultural or institutional.

  3. Yes, mostly they were Jews, but German Jews nonetheless. I don’t recall a huge influx of Spaniards and Kenyans and Arabs and Chinese and Canadians and whatnot flooding through 1930s Germany, do you?

    Those Jews were as assimilated into German culture as American Jews are into this one. Certainly somewhat outsiders, and certainly the outsider’s perspective is helpful, but…?

    The Curies were a French and Polish couple, but was that Frenchness and Polishness the necessary force in their discoveries?

  4. The Manhattan Project believed they were building a bomb to stop Hitler, so the Jewishness of many of its members probably served as a motivator more than anything else.

    But the productivity of Jews supports my point about cultural coherence, I think.

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