What exactly is a culture of Innovation?

1 March 2017

What exactly is a culture of Innovation?

The expression “culture of innovation”  is a perennial part of most innovation strategies. But why is it so important?  And what exactly does it mean?

Why is it important?

Mark Pagel in his book “Wired for Culture”  says that for many people one of the most distinctive features of life in human societies is the sense of belonging to a particular cultural group.  He makes a strong case that culture exercises a form of mind control over us.  We willingly accept this mind control – probably without knowing it – in return for the protection and prosperity our cultures provide. Just think of a hockey game or rock concert.

Culture has had a profound effect on the history of innovation.  Joel Mokyr – a historian – in his book “The Culture of Growth” shows how the culture of Europeans changed radically from 1500 to 1700.  In 1500 the culture was very intolerant one where dissent) was harshly criticized, and punished (think the Spanish Inquisition); by 1700 scientific investigation and new scientific theories were everywhere (think Newton) and widely accepted and the stage was set for the Industrial Revolution a few decades later.  If the culture hadn’t changed the Industrial Revolution couldn’t have happened and our world would be vastly different today.

Mokyr shows that the idea of progress is a central aspect of culture, and in particular how each generation sees itself compared with their ancestors – whether we are better or worse than they were.  For almost two thousand years the accepted wisdom in Europe was that the ancient Greek philosophers  (in particular Aristotle) had created a perfect understanding of the world, and that to better understand the world one only had to study the ancient texts.  That is the attitude that gradually eroded from 1500 to 1700.  One key development that caused this change was the voyages of discovery (e.g. Columbus, in 1492) which discovered things the ancients knew nothing about and discredited their claims to universal knowledge.

So clearly, culture is a critical factor to consider in innovation strategy.  If the culture isn’t right, new ideas are stifled.  However, society has limits to what it will accept, often driven by cultural values.  For example, GMOs, which are often opposed despite being proven safe.  So there are culturally imposed limits to what innovations we are prepared to accept, and this is an important aspect of innovation policy.

What does it mean?

Robert Boyd and   Peter Richerson (profs at the University of California) developed this widely accepted definition of culture:  “ Culture is a set of beliefs, values and preferences, capable of affecting behaviour, that are socially (not genetically) transmitted and that are shared by some subset of society.”  This implies that there is not just one culture in Canada, but a multitude of different cultures.  And they all have different attitudes towards innovation.  Just think of differences between provinces, between different age groups and between different companies.

Culture is constantly changing and evolving, although many aspects of culture change very slowly.  Just think how our attitudes towards things like smoking and using seat belts have changed in the last couple of decades. There are also vast differences between countries as well.  In the World Values Survey Canada has strong self-expression values similar to Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Iceland, very different from countries such as Russia and Belarus.


So what exactly is a culture of innovation?  It’s complicated.  It is obviously a vitally important factor that deserves serious attention in any innovation policy.  The writers of innovation strategies probably have in mind a general acceptance of progress and openness to new ideas, a willingness to collaborate and perhaps a willingness to try new things, and to take initiatives.  But if they mean that, it would be better to say that, rather than obscure it with a very loaded term like “culture of innovation.”


Peter Josty

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