Much attention is given to creating a culture of innovation, however many people don’t realize that culture is both an innovation itself and the basis for all innovation. It’s been argued that a key distinction between modern humans and our forebears is culture—our ability to consciously encode knowledge and transmit that through time.

What early humans did through oral tradition, ritual, and rite is to create a system out of survival best-practices and codify it in a way that allowed it to be memorized and passed down—long before wikis or training manuals were possible. This ensured the greater survival of the species by rapidly improving upon the tools we used to do that.

On the shoulders of giants.

This encoding of information allowed us to build on what came before, capitalizing on lessons learned by those whom preceded us, in a sense, taking the slow process of evolution and accelerating it. In this way, the first principle of innovation is culture. Whether conscious of it or not, the starting point of any innovation is always to look at what we know so far.

I’ve been asked to define innovation many times and I’ve found that people have a tendency to think of innovation as creating something totally new and to overly focus themselves on that. I like to define innovation as simply finding a better way. Whether talking about a Floating AI Astronaut Assistant, or the domestication of the horse, we are ultimately talking about finding a better way of resolving critical issues. This happens in the context in which those issues exist, but is also inseparable from the knowledge of previous solutions. Culture is always the starting point.

Innovations dark side.

But innovation can be a double-edged sword. Some of our greatest innovations in mechanical efficiency and productivity in the last 250 years of industrial revolution are undoubtedly creating many of the circumstances which now threaten our existence.

Let’s take the example of a paper mill. Rest assured, it represents the epitome of bold innovation to someone somewhere. It has made paper an utterly ubiquitous commodity that has fueled the success and productivity of both education and business, to the point that a trash bin with endless crumples of paper is the universal sign of someone working out a problem. We don’t think twice about just throwing it away.

However, pulp and paper generates the sixth largest amount of industrial air, water, and land emissions in the United States. In 2015 the US pulp and paper industry released about 135.1 million pounds of emissions into the air alone, or about 20% of all industrial air pollutant released that year. This accounts for only 66% of total waste released by the pulp and paper industry in the US, with another 10% going into the water and 24% onto land.

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Scary to think this was removed from the EPA’s website. Find it archived here and read the full report here.

The paper mill utterly transformed the ability to produce what became an essential resource for the mental infrastructure of the first world, and ultimately surely represented a better way of doing things. What they failed to ask is, “By what measure is this better,” and “Are we looking at the whole picture?”

They weren’t looking at the part of the picture that drives everything we do. As far as we can tell, the driving force behind innovation, and virtually any human action, comes down to passing on our DNA and ensuring the survival of the species. We don’t do that if we make our habitat uninhabitable.

But, these systems of dark innovation, be it paper mills or landfills, can only exist in a culture that prioritizes short term gain over long term wholistic survival.

Survival of the nimblest.

If we want to live in a world that is suitable for human habitation but continue to be innovative, the key is infusing broader systems thinking into people’s lives. It’s going to take our first and greatest innovation—our culture—to influence people into understanding the level of agility that is necessary to survive, as well as to change the way we view what we create and the direct and indirect impact that has on human survivability. Because after all, like one of my favorite quotes of all time states, “What good is creating the future if we don’t like who we are when we get there.”

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If you haven’t had the chance to see him speak, I highly recommend it.

What do you think? How do you see the relationship between culture and innovation? I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

This is available as a talk or workshop. Message me for more information.