Archive for May, 2013

“Nothing that results from human progress is achieved with unanimous consent. And those who are enlightened before the others are condemned to pursue that light in spite of others …”

WHO said that? Many people may guess it’s either Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Larry Page (Google) or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). No doubt, these four are among the greatest global innovators of modern times. But the quote was from Italian-born Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus (to his son) after he discovered America more than 500 years ago.

The quote was based on a well-researched script of the film 1492, The Conquest of Paradise which was a fairly accurate depiction about Columbus. And as he continues: “There was a time when the New World didn’t exist, the sun set in the west on an ocean where no man dare to venture, and beyond that … infinity.”

Here’s the prelude to the film about the environment during Columbus’s time: “500 years ago, Spain was a nation gripped by fear and superstitions ruled by the crown and a ruthless inquisition that persecuted men for daring to dream.

One man challenged this power. Driven by his sense of destiny, he crossed the sea of darkness in search of honor, gold, and the greater glory of God”.

Columbus tried unsuccessfully for several years to raise funds for his sea adventure to America (which he thought was the new Asia) with many thinking he was mad.

Finally, Queen Isabella I, after victory over the rebels in southern Spain, agreed to provide him with some funds, with the lure of finding gold and the hope that he would bring back good news for the glory of Spain.

It was an arduous journey and Columbus had to keep motivating his men, many on the verge of mutiny, to carry on despite not being able to find land after 70 days.

They finally found land in the island of San Salvador on Oct 12, 1492. When they stepped ashore, it was a moment of truth for him and his crew.

In every sense of the word, Columbus was a true innovator of his time. His voyage to America was a major game changer in world history, which led to the massive European colonisation of America.

An innovator is someone who is usually ahead of his time and is prepared, often against the odds and at great risk, to do something differently or to produce a new result.

Often innovators do not have the full consensus of other stakeholders as Columbus had emphasised and they are even ridiculed and condemned by those fearful of change and the unknown.

Innovation is also a relative concept. What may be innovative in the past may not be so today but the converse may not be true.

If you look at the real innovators who built America into the most powerful industrial nation on earth, it started with emerging businessmen like Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and JP Morgan after the American Civil War.

The country was filled with a determined entrepreneur spirit to rebuild the country, much like what Germany did after World War II. Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan were great innovators, but they soon grew greedy and ruthless.

They became monopolists who wanted to control their industries and were against free and fair competition.

These capitalist titans wielded great influence over the White House, especially under President William McKinley. But after the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt took over as president and he wanted to be fair to the people as a whole.

He embarked on an aggressive campaign to break up the monopolies, change the rules of doing business and allow new entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed on a more level playing field.

The 1911 court trial and the subsequent breaking up of the giant Standard Oil owned by Rockefeller and the granting of the rights for innovative entrepreneur Henry Ford to mass produce his car, were two important landmarks of the Roosevelt era to curb the power of monopolies and free up the innovative spirit.

Middle class America grew at a fast pace that brought even more innovation, entrepreneurship and prosperity to most Americans and even fuelled the growth of the world economy.

Innovation has become a buzzword. It can be defined as creating a new product or process of use to society, or improving significantly on the technology or methodology of a product or process.

Innovation in general has become more challenging, interesting and varied in the new technology era with many platforms available for numerous other innovations to be created, devised, improved upon significantly or built around.

An innovation can be at a micro or macro level. At the micro level, there can be innovations on new or existing product or process. At the macro level, there can be social, economic and political innovations.

Transforming government machineries to make them more efficient, accountable, transparent and responsive to needs of the public and radically improving the delivery of public services can be considered a form of political innovation.

Many political parties must do some soul searching on how to make themselves more relevant to the demands and expectations of the electorate.

To avoid becoming out of sync with the real world, these parties and some media organisations need to undertake political innovation instead of falling for the usual claptrap of playing the race card.

Increasingly, the youth of all races are rejecting and scorning such a “convenient” race-based approach.

On micro-economic innovations, the biggest challenge in a country like Malaysia is about how to have a new mindset working within and against conservative cultural and structural constraints in the society.

Many countries in Asia still lack the culture of trying new things or doing things differently, of taking calculated risks, of being bold and not afraid to fail and make honest mistakes. A negative aspect of Asian culture is the stigma of shame associated with failure. It is partly due to being too shy and polite.

In many cases, the situation is made worse by backbiting, bitching or slander by others who feel envious or threatened by the possible success of these would-be entrepreneurs.

Therefore, these people who fail are reluctant to try again. But it is only through persistence and trying again and again, that they would learn their lessons and become successful.

It is the opposite in countries like the US, which is why they are so successful in their world class innovations and entrepreneurship.

Another negative aspect here is the structural and legal environment, especially the tough bankruptcy laws which have been rather punitive even on entrepreneurs who make honest mistakes. However, these laws have been amended and the situation seems to be improving.

Developing a new mindset and an environment where the spirit of innovation would thrive is the key to our success towards a developed and civil society.

It is a major task which needs the political will and support of the government, political leaders, corporate leaders, media, NGOs and all other stakeholders in our society.

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