To what extent is innovation collective?

Let’s not re-create the wheel they say, as if the wheel were one individual innovation, thought by a single great thinker from our ancestry: the genius cave man!

Genius cavemanMost of human history in fact seems to have been analysed this way (with a focus on great individuals) until relatively recently. Take the study of leadership as an example. Its first spot in the limelight as a subject of its own was with the Great Man theories of the 1840s. Subsequently, the subject’s theories have shifted through traits theories, behavioural theories, contingency based theories, charismatic based theories, and now only recently to more collective forms of leadership which, for example, take the followers into account as well.

None of these theories were ‘stupid’, and in fact despite the reduced popularity of the great man theories in the field of leadership, they have permeated a great deal of our culture. Think about the big events that you learnt in school history lessons; there were probably a few significant individuals at the heart of each study. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar; the list goes on and on. Indeed we seem obsessed with individuals across all subjects. Think about English, and Shakespeare probably pops into mind. Music; Beethoven and Mozart. Science; Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Maths; Pythagoras. Etc. It makes sense for us to link significant ideas with their proponents. And so you can see how the Great Man theories of the 1840s became popular. However the growing force of pragmatism is forcing these emphases into the history books as well. For what use is it to memorise a list of great names? Just as in leadership, so too in other studies, we are becoming much less interested in who did what years ago, and much more in how we can do those things ourselves.

However, it may also be that this move is more logical and truthful than simply pragmatic. Einstein, for instance, wrote the general and special laws of relativity. But could he have done this without the help of Max Telmud (a student who introduced him to several difficult topics), his teachers at Zurich university, the authors of those books that he read (and he read a lot), and indeed the entire advancement of science up until that point in history?! I could have extended this list, but hopefully you get the point. To give an other example; shortly into this century a broadsheet newspaper concluded that Marx was the most significant political thinker of all times. Whether or not you agree with this, it would be impossible to deny that a significant amount of what he said, was widely known and talked about when he was writing. Neither did Marx even try to deny it. For instance he started his academic career as a Hegelian, and this is where his concept of alienation came from. When he later wrote more about alienation he said not that he was adding to Hegel’s work, but rather that he was taking it, and “turning it on its head”.

When we come to innovation, many ideas seem to be echoed in nature. And so it is easy to infer that prior to the invention of the wheel someone might have seen a log rolling down a hill. Perhaps this log injured or killed several people, and started a lot of gossip. It’s quite possible that events such as this could have been talked about for generations before one creative individual, or perhaps team of individuals, decided to ‘take’ (not make) this idea, and use it for something else. How else can one realistically suppose that the wheel’s invention came about? Inventors/creators don’t just sit around and invent/create out of nothing. They learn from others all the time, amalgamate different ideas heard in different places, and build upon what other people have said.

invention of the wheelAlthough we don’t know exactly who created the wheel or when, we have in fact made numerous educated guesses. For instance the earliest wheels found come from Sumer, (around 3500BC – this empire was formed along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the Middle East) the empire which is also credited with the invention of writing. And the process of their invention is believed to have been a six stage progression, from placing rollers beneath heavy objects, to placing sledge like runners beneath them, through various combinations of the two led eventually to what we now call the wheel.

If the Sumerian invention of the wheel is correct, then this invention was indeed a huge one, over a huge period of time. But my contention is that all creativity is collective and social. After all, if you put someone in a room at birth, and kept them alive, but with no form of social interaction; do you really think that that person would ever invent anything new?

To what extent do you agree? Is innovation always collective? Or is it sometimes, or even more than sometimes, individual?

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