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Rocco Leonard Martino
Culture and Innovation

Model of artificial island in shape of palm tree (AP Images)

Visitors gather around a model of an artificial island for tourists in Dubai, one place in the Gulf region that extols innovation.

Those cultures that allow their people to dream, innovate, and produce will be the winners in the race for economic independence. Rocco Martino is founder and president of CyberFone Technologies and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article appears in the November issue of eJournal USA, “Roots of Innovation.”


Until the Industrial Revolution, real income for individuals and nations was essentially flat. Over much of the globe, the living standard of, say, a farmer in 1750 would not differ greatly from that of his great-grandparent. Since the start of the 19th century, in some parts of the world this has changed. Growth and income for some nations has risen dramatically, but for others it is still flat. Why? One answer is that new technologies made possible the creation, accumulation, and dissemination of ever greater wealth. A deeper answer is that some cultures embraced knowledge and change, and thus emerged as the fertile soil in which innovators could take risks, pursue their dreams, and, not coincidentally, enrich their fellow citizens. Are the nations that lag bogged down by tradition, stultifying central control, or a culture of bureaucratic impediments?

The United States has long been a leader in both innovation and its application to wealth generation. One even might argue that the mindset was part of the nation’s DNA. One of its founders, Benjamin Franklin, alone was responsible for inventing the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the flexible urinary catheter. (Although Franklin chose not to patent these inventions, his many other entrepreneurial activities amply demonstrate his proclivity for making money!) In recent years, Pacific Rim economies including Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan have demonstrated similar skills, even as China and India develop significant earning capability and bid for roles as global economic leaders.

Member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) earn vast returns for their oil assets but mostly have neither displayed a great capacity for innovation nor participated greatly in the global economic expansion. Arguably these nations’ significant oil-derived per capita income dampens incentive to invest in new ventures or to encourage innovation. Some regional governments seem aware of the problem, including Dubai, with its heavy investments in creating a financial and recreational infrastructure, and Saudi Arabia, whose King Saud University now has 70,000 students.

In Latin America, Brazil has emerged as a leader, making significant strides in applying modern innovative techniques internally and also for export.

The genius for innovation and its productive application to problem solving and wealth generation was not a U.S. invention, and its spread will continue far beyond the nations mentioned here. Everywhere, though, the emergence of innovation-friendly climates of opinion, habits, and ideas will be a challenge of culture, individual initiative, and government support for new ideas.

Affecting Culture

How does culture affect innovation, and vice versa?

Culture and innovation are linked. Innovation cannot occur in a culture that does not, cannot, or will not support it; but once created, an innovation affects the culture, and the two grow together. History is full of examples that demonstrate this. In today’s Cyber Age of pervasive communication and information technology, this impact is pronounced.

The emergence of the smart phone - the handheld device coupling the cell phone with computing capabilities and Internet access, has created tools for modifying public opinion, speeding trends and intensifying culture shifts. Reading habits have shifted from newspapers and books to short bursts of instant facts or opinions. Discussions and letters have been heavily replaced initially by e-mail and now by Twitter and other micro-blogging sites. Cyber-culture has dramatically shortened the time from knowledge to decision and shortened dramatically the cycle in which knowledge is recycled to create still more knowledge. Instant information, from anywhere to anyone, has now become a vehicle for instant impact on opinion and motivation – and a potential opening for manipulation. This acceleration of ‘knowing’ can impact education, public opinion, entertainment, mores, and cultural development.

In much of the world, cultures originally developed among peoples dedicated primarily to feeding themselves, to the rhythms of agrarian life. Today culture often is shaped by the unique atmosphere, ways, mores, and traditions of a group of people connected in some fashion. That connection can be education level, religious beliefs, family linkages, ethnicity, geographic location, or nationality. And culture also is a driving force behind personal or group creativity.

Innovation is the art of creating something new, whether a poem, a writing, a flowering plant, a mathematical theorem, a medical advance, or an invention. Most recently there has been great focus on technology, especially information technology, as a major catalyst for innovation. This is due in large measure to the remarkable advances in global wealth in the past six decades tracing back to the creation of the general-purpose electronic computer in 1946. Linked with major advances in communication capability and in visualization techniques, the computer era has spawned a significant growth of wealth and made possible the birth of new industries, even in locations with no previous heavy-industry capability. Examples are the microchip industries of Singapore and Taiwan, and the software programming developments in Ireland and the Philippines. Similar developments have enlarged the economies of nations with existing heavy-industry capability, such as China, India, and Japan.

These developments built upon each other, each innovation leading logically to the next, and all depending upon a culture that embraced knowledge and change. Attempts have been made for centuries to find ways to compute more easily and quickly. Mechanical and electrical machines built within the industrial capabilities of their time preceded the computer. It was only the rise in electronic-tube stability and knowledge of its use that made it possible to conceive and build the first electronic computer. Computers made satellites possible, leading in turn to the communication revolution. And the same knowledge and use of circuits led to television and visualization techniques, mainly digital, that complete the information triad of power that has created today’s Cyber Age.

Students in traditional garb at Saudi university (Reuters)
King Saud University seeks to foster a culture of innovation.

Nor was it a coincidence that so many of the events that led to the modern personal computer emerged in the United States in the 1940s and the following decades, with a concentration in California’s Silicon Valley region. There, the prevailing culture brought together people with ideas and devices that could embody those ideas into a working product.

Today we live in what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls a “flat world.” If not yet completely flat, ours certainly is a flatter world, one where instant communication and availability of information bring innovation-friendly culture across national boundaries and empower ever larger numbers of world citizens to create and to innovate.

Fire in the Belly

Even in the Silicon Valley, India’s Bangalore region, or any of the other world centers of innovation, not everyone is an innovator. Innovators are individuals with dreams and the strength of character to bring their dreams to fruition. This “fire in the belly” -- a deep-seated personal drive and ambition to accomplish and achieve -- cannot be created, but it can be nurtured, fostered, encouraged, whether in technology, medicine, the arts, or agriculture.

The major steps in building the cultural climate for innovation include expanding educational opportunities and facilities, providing financial support for innovators, eliminating bureaucratic impediments to recognition of an innovation, and spending money to publicize an innovative product.

Consider a musical composition. To assure its success there must be educational faculties available to train potential composers in music, financial support for a composer to create the piece, a legal infrastructure providing copyright protection against illegal copying, and funding to ensure performance of the music.

Another encouraging development is that many new technologies lower the barriers to further innovation, a virtuous circle that holds the promise of ushering in a more global culture of innovation. Before the emergence of cell phones and mobile smart phones, long-distance communication required extensive and expensive infrastructure, beyond the ability of many poor nations to afford. But cell phone towers are much simpler and cheaper to build than wired networks. As a result, millions of potential innovators who might otherwise have been isolated and bypassed are empowered to participate in the growing community of innovators.

The Internet

The emergence of the Internet, together with affordable cell phone or other access in a growing part of the world, is revolutionizing cultural development. This does not mean that Africans, Indians, or Chinese are becoming more like Europeans, Japanese, or Americans. It means that more global citizens can communicate and that one’s location is gradually becoming a less important factor in one’s ability to innovate.

The current cell phone population is more than half the world population, and closing in on the total figure. The cell phone is rapidly becoming the universal means of communication, entertainment, source of information, and even education. Data stored in countless systems and data banks around the world can be accessed and used anywhere, anytime, by anyone. This dramatic shift puts the resources of the world at everyone’s fingertips.

While earlier technologies such as radio communicated across national boundaries — consider the Cold War battles between western shortwave broadcasters and Soviet jamming signals – the information flow is far greater today.

Attempts to control the Internet or cellular traffic can be only partially successful. Disclosure of information, sharing of ideas, impetus for creation, and successful innovation are bound to expand.

Nor should we link all innovation to technological advance. Pioneers in music, literature, and dance, for example, always will press the frontiers of their respective arts. But all can benefit from technology as well. Many is the composer who creates sound using special software on a personal computer. And technology aids immeasurably in the dissemination, use, and appreciation of their creations. No longer need a band rely upon a recording label to distribute its music when YouTube or the equivalent is but a click away.

Culture and innovation, then, feed upon each other and expand jointly together. On a global basis, there are no limits to what is possible, save one: An innovator must have the motivation, courage, and fortitude to prevail. Countries that encourage these individuals will advance both their culture and their innovation potential. Those that do not will lag behind.

Those nations that permit the individual to dream, innovate, and produce will gain stature and influence in the 21st century. Overcoming hidebound traditions (although certainly not all traditions), restrictive government, and unnecessary bureaucratic impediments will be major factors in this race. A culture rewarding ingenuity and success will catalyze a new and international wave of economic growth. Globally, a tsunami is building that will sweep the unprepared before it.

Другие статьи автора: Martino Rocco Leonard

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