— Cultural Sources of Newness

Innovation in the Change workshop

Past week, I co-organized a workshop with my colleagues Dorothea Kübler and Steffen Huck, strongly assisted by Sir Peter Jonas. The topic – Logics of Change in Economy and the Arts – was a broad bracket to gather participants from a wide variety of fields: gallerists, music managers, a writer, a painter, several economists, a banker, a lawyer, and a few others. The contributions were disparate, but the strange thing about this type of workshop – this was the fifth one of a series (three at UCL, two at WZB) – seems to be that the participants value vastly different features of the talks and the discussions.

For me, two contributions were pertinent because of their immediate relation to innovation. The first was by Günter Ortmann, a professor of administration science and a specialist for innovation in organizations. He titled his speech Dancing in Chains, after a long quote from a text by Friedrich Nietzsche. Here is part of it: “In the case of every Greek artists, poet, or writer we must ask: What is the new constraint which he imposes upon himself and makes attractive to his contemporaries, so as to find imitators? For the thing called “invention” (in metre, for example) is always a self imposed fetter of this kind. “Dancing in chains” – to make that hard for themselves and then to spread a false notion that it is easy – that is the trick that they wish to show us…” Ortmann also emphasized the role of tradition as “abutment” (Widerlager), irritation, chance and serendipity (“Serendipity is when you look for the needle in the haystack and come out with the farmer’s daughter.”)

Steffen Huck, economist and co-organizer, spoke on “Innovation cycles“. He emphasizes the role of risk under conditions when the creative actors have nothing to lose, and those who support them have deep enough pockets to pay for risky, yet potentially profitable proposals. He presented two examples: first is the introduction of junk bonds by Michael Milken in the 1980’s, an invention that sparked the success of high-yield financial products in the 1990’s, second is the invention of “The West Wing”, created by Aaron Sorkin in 1999, and the subsequent rise of  very long TV series, produced  with cinematic quality. I am not convinced that the mechanism emphasized by Huck is the only relevant configuration, but it is certainly part of the larger story.

It’s fun to bring people to the WZB who usually don’t stumble into this kind of institution. And the enrichment is mutual.