Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, September 19, 2008

The company is called "Ideation." Their business is helping to foster innovation within companies. The CEO is a man by the name of Zion Bar-El. At the end of his fascinating presentation, I asked him how he would respond to someone who said, "It's easy for you to talk about innovation; you come from an innovative culture." He said, "I grew up in a small town in Israel; nothing to do. We had to learn how to innovate on our own."

Hmmm....yes, but I could imagine that a small town in Israel might be more likely to foster innovation than the communities and culture most Chinese people have grown up in.

This is an often discussed subject today. What part does culture play in developing creativity? The point has often been made that the Chinese are good at manufacturing the innovations of others, but not as strong in developing their own inventions. But we used to say the same thing about the Japanese, and now, today, in the field of robotics, for example, it would be very hard to make that case. So a certain amount of innovation seems to be a natural function of development. It takes time for any developing country to get on its feet, and the development process will include the development of technology.

But we still have to come back to the question of what factors are most influential in "turning loose" the creative elements in a people, because the Japanese culture had been around for a lot of years before the tremendous technological and economic expansion that took place in the years following World War II. Something about that war and the way the recovery from that horrible tragedy was handled, had the effect of freeing the culture and people of Japan to do what they perhaps might not have done otherwise.

I posed the question to Boris, another innovator from this company, putting it a little differently, "Is it possible to develop the kind of creativity you are talking about in an authoritative society?" He told me that he grew up in Russia, which was very authoritative. OK, so perhaps one can develop a certain measure of creativity even under a system like the old Soviet Union. But it is not surprising that in order to fully express his innovative nature, he had to leave the land of his birth. Alla, one of his colleagues, said that in order for innovation to happen, you have to have stability, and that it is not for us to dictate to China exactly how they are to maintain it. I agreed with her on that point. I do not propose that China adopt American style democracy. I think it would be a disaster. But while I am not passionate about democracy, I am passionate about freedom and justice. Regardless of which type of government you have, there must be some means of avenging the victims of injustice. And, in my mind, there must be a sense in society that, while new ideas may not always be readily accepted, they will not be met with punishment and repression.

But that doesn't take away from the lady's point. You do need stability in a society. And sometimes that stability may seem authoritarian to someone from a permissive society like America. Again, it would be well to look at the example of Japan. Many Americans don't realize that after World War II, Japan was ruled for five years by a dictator. The Americans didn't object to this, because it was an American dictator. I have mentioned this before, but when I was a kid and I used to buy old, occupation era currency, every bill included the following statement: "The government of Japan agrees to pay the bearer on demand one yen in silver." It was signed by General Douglas MacArthur. Japan could not have begun the tremendous economic development which characterized the post war period without this stability. But this stability was enforced by a man who was a passionate believer in freedom. He did not merely allow the Japanese to set up a democratic government. He forced them to set up a democratic government. The Japanese people still use the constitution that MacArthur's team wrote for them.

So while it is true that China does need stability, we should not expect to see great innovation in a society where stability comes at the expense of justice for the oppressed. During the Olympics, the government set up several areas for demonstrators. They couldn't just demonstrate anywhere. They had to go to specifically designated places. But when a few naive Chinese demonstrators showed up to take the government up on their offer, they were arrested and sentenced to education through labor.

No trial. No right to a lawyer. Their sentences are "extrajudicial." I do not believe creativity will flourish under such a system. China is almost certainly doomed to "piggy back" on the creativity of other countries until this situation changes.

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