Tuesday, August 07, 2012

East/West Systems: Causes for the Innovation Gap

Roughly a decade ago, a visiting professor from Singapore lectured my international trade economics class on his native land. He was proud of what Singapore had accomplished in rising from post-colonial 3rd world status to a solid nation near the tops of many socioeconomic rankings. He had one nagging criticism of his country and fellow citizens. They lacked the innovation and creativity of the West. He came back to it often. He even called it an "Innovation Gap". He worried that without creativity, Singapore would have industry leeched away by neighboring lower cost nations. I chuckled as I had many smart Asian friends in college. I had not yet worked in the real world and discovered what so many people realize when working with Asians: they are great at tasks and modifying, but do not have that creative or innovative spark. I'm not saying all don't, but on average that creativity or drive for innovation (Faustian drive) is not found in as many Asians as Europeans/Americans. Ten years into corporate America, and I've heard maybe 100 jokes from a variety of Asians how Indians are the Germans of Asia: great at doing a task, but don't deviate or think on their own. That is an insult to both groups, especially Germans who basically invented the car. Could a reason for it be thousands of years of culture and social forces squeezing it out of people? Looking at how the two groups view the idea of the self as well as how they relate to the world, we can see how the ambition of innovation begets innovation and fosters it within the individual and that the environment for innovation is more fertile in the West than the East.

Americans, and Europeans, take our worldview for granted. It is part of the reason why we think democracy can fit anywhere, but then act shocked that it doesn't yield nice, socially liberal democracies in new locations with different religions, institutions and people. We are a self centered society. Not just in how we view groups, but how we see ourselves. I am my own person. I am me. We see the world through our eyes. Our path in life is our choice. We decide. We engage at the level we want to, how we want to and when we want to. The West has immense respect for the individual. We make fun of people who dive into their roles. We mock "soccer moms", "stuffed shirt corporate executives", "academics", or even sports fanatics. It is considered phony or inauthentic. It's not 'who you are'. It's a role you play and put away, like Superman being Clark Kent out in the daylight. You put it away as you develop your worldview using your critical faculties on your time as you choose to do so.

This has been a process lasting decades if not centuries. Part of this might be the relative youth and low population density that Europe enjoyed in relation to say India, China or even the island nation of Japan. Tribes in Europe were still pushing ever westward as recently as 3000 years ago, and still that drive to push westward lasted until the closing of the West in the USA. The average citizen is still told even today that he or she should make something of their life. The power rests in their hands. Even if it doesn't, the standard assumption is that you can make your own life, control your destiny or forge your own path. You build character through the choices you make and the life you live.

Does this sound like the worldview of any Asian or even Arab friends you have ever had? Arab Muslims constantly say Inshallah "God willing" even now in 2012. Hindu's consider atman, the self, to be part of the all Brahmin. Your soul is part of the 'all'. You are just a piece of the transcendent self that is everywhere. Buddhists want you to destroy yourself, achieve nothingness, deny attachment, etc. You eliminate the ego, the needs, the desires, or the wants. Chinese religion has strong family worship, and their naming convention places the family name before the personal name. Your first identifier is not you, but your family. The focus is on the group, not the individual. The environment is focused on the system, on the religion, on order and hierarchy.

India is a great example, and plays into the anecdote from my opening paragraph. Your role is forced on you in India's caste system; you become the role. Marriages are still arranged to this day. No choice to be made about your life. Life is imposed on you. Life is not what you make it, as life already has a role, a job, and a wife for you. You better not let them down, as the village and religion will enforce the code strictly. You exemplify character through your fulfillment of your duty to society. Somewhere in all of this enforcement of roles, it seems that the role fulfillment is a way to keep the peace in a tightly clustered and heavily populated area experiencing droughts off and on for thousands of years. "Do your role and duty, don't stray, keep the peace, and if you live well you'll be rewarded in your next life". Life in those religions is usually a circular thing that never ends. Western culture has that tremendous gift of one life, then an eternal afterlife from the Judeo-Christian foundation. One life, don't waste it is a common refrain.

With these two very different systems of thinking, should we really be surprised that innovation, creativity and inventions seem to spring more often in the West? Centuries of culture and civilizational development can bring pressure to mold people. After all, liberals come up with new, limited scope environmental causes to explain racial disparities every few years. I admire how the Japanese and Koreans have absorbed technological changes but retained their traditional ways. It might be linked to how strong the societal pressure is to retain roles and honor family, religion, country, etc. The Japanese have been wonderful modifiers, and in recent years have innovated or purely invented new products. I would argue that they are better known for changing that which has already been invented. Time will tell if the spark lights in the East as more Asian countries develop or attain 1st world status. I hope that it does happen as our complex world will need all of the innovation and ambition to push us to the next stage of human civilization.

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