Innovation flows in cycles. Ideas are generated by individuals, evaluated by a field recognized as experts in a domain, and either accepted or rejected as creative contributions. Over many cycles, the domain evolves with the consensus of its experts.
Perhaps because of our cultural history of rugged individualism -- a culture that rightly praises the lone artist, inventor, or poet --, our thinking about innovation tends to start and end with individuals. We have come far enough in our understanding that it is clear that a formula for individual creativity, if one exists, is so complex a mix of nature and nurture -- of genetic endowments and family, cultural, and social influences -- that there cannot be enough certainty to justify political intervention at this level of social life.
We should not conclude from this, however, that there is nothing that can be done to promote innovation. New and useful ideas may be generated at apparently random intervals by creative individuals, but the field entrusted with defining a domain of knowledge may be more or less receptive to those ideas. Somewhat paradoxically (since a field of experts is nothing more than a group of creative individuals, which I have denied we understand well enough to regulate), we do understand enough about what makes a field more or less receptive to new and useful ideas to justify a few political interventions. The reason for this is simple: We have not (at least not until recently) had the technological capacity to store and process enough information about individuals to have certainty about them. The same is not true of groups. We have retold, recorded, and revisited histories of various groups of people for thousands of years.
What are the lessons of that history? Painted in broad brush strokes, they are summarized by Csikszentmihalyi in his work on Creativity:
Better training, higher expectations, more accurate recognition, a greater availability of opportunities, and stronger rewards are among the conditions that facilitate the production and the assimilation of potentially useful new ideas.
These characteristics have been found in every great civilization, be it Greece, Rome, Florence, Venice, Victorian England, or the Silicon Valley and New York of today. Our civilization is now in crisis, and innovation offers it its best hopes for the future. We must save ourselves from this crisis by learning new and useful ways of living. To that end, we could do worse than to make our many fields of endeavor more receptive to the new and useful ideas of individual artists, authors, and inventors.
Here is a sketch of how reform might be accomplished:
- Training: We have the best universities in the world. Lately, they have stayed that way because they have been fed by a stream of immigrants who are eager to learn and have been raised in cultures that place a high value on formal education. Art, mathematics, music, and science are hardly valued in our culture the way they were many years ago. When budget cuts are needed, some of these are first to go. Math and science are not cool to American kids. Why not?
- Expectations: The answer is expectations. Adults in this country place too little value on learning for the sake of learning. There is something beautiful and good about having an understanding that brings order to the universe, be it artistic, musical, or mathematical. But our expectations for the next generation are only that it will be more practical and prosperous in solving whatever problem is immediately before us. The rational hypothesis has been accepted and become a reality for all too many of us. A more humane hypothesis that recognizes and encourages the enjoyment of learning and discovery must take the side of rational self-interest before our posterity seeks training and rises above our expectations.
- Opportunities: We excel at least in this respect as a nation since indeed opportunities to join a field and contribute to a domain of knowledge are open in the United States even to many beyond our borders. But we should not rest on our laurels, and would do even better by making those opportunities available to even larger groups, especially when it can be done at low cost. Why not let students who graduate with Ph.D.s from U.S. universities remain in the U.S. if they so choose? At least we should not use money to make fewer opportunities available!
- Recognition: If we are lucky, our culture will evolve to more widely value creativity. In the mean time, the recognition sought by many creative individuals will be not (or not only) the recognition of experts in a given domain, but the recognition of the managers and investors who decide what new and useful ideas are accepted for development, marketing, and distribution to the whole of society. Those managers and investors should be held to the standards of public service commensurate with their level of responsibility to society as a whole. Although government regulation has failed again and again to keep up with changes in a given domain, the web of knowledge that is being spun with new technology offers us all a chance to hold these leaders responsible when their decisions are too short-term or provincial. We should expect these leaders to establish a public presence on the Internet, and to have at least some channel for receiving feedback from people other than the ones they see and talk to on a day to day basis.
- Rewards: For the truly creative individual, seeing a new and useful idea accepted into the domain is its own reward. Yet material and psychological needs remain. Material needs are often met in this country -- although it certainly harder for the average artist and author now than it was before digital performances were available to everyone. But psychological needs for reward and recognition remain. Without some reward or recognition, there is no game to be played, no competition to be won. If competition is an engine of creativity, then rewards should be set commensurate with the importance of the creative contribution. Our patent and antitrust systems are perhaps the most sophisticated means for maintaining such competitions that the world has ever known. We should beware of cutting back at the rewards of patenting when we are so in need of new and useful ideas.