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Can You Create Creativity?   August 11, 2005

Singapore, it seems, is betting that creating creativity is the ticket to economic success in a world where manufacturing anything anywhere but China appears to be a losing proposition. But as this story from the S.F. Chronicle suggests, it isn't that easy to create creativity.

Malaysia is the poster child of the "we're gonna create a Silicon Valley right here" fantasy, having poured millions into a new business park called Cyberjaya. It has the glittering buildings and the fast fiber-optic cabling and the big parking lots--but no Apple Computer will ever be born there, and and it's highly unlikely any "disruptive technology" (the PC, the Internet, the web browser, etc.) will be invented there, for the obvious reason that it's not the buildings which make Silicon Valley, it's the people, the spirit, the networks and the money which make Silicon Valley--and indeed, California as a whole-- the place where many innovations begin, grow and then spread around the world.

It sounds like magic in a bottle, and to some degree it is; you cannot just hire talented people and give them money and a lab. You also need the culture which nurtures innovation, creaitivity and risk-taking: people who aren't just talented, but people who are willing to go for broke, the big change-the-world ideas. Then you need overlapping networks of like-minded people willing to encourage the risk-takers to go for it, people who have the experience of both failure and success, people with connections to the labs, university departments, sources of capital, patent attorneys, marketers, and all the other nutrients which must be present for innovation to take root and grow.

And of course you need multiple sources of big money, both from the government to fund basic research which has no immediate practical market value, and then private funding which comes without strings of corruption or government interference. And lastly, you need low taxes, so that entrepreneurs can start businesses without high overhead.

It is possible for relatively rigid societies to foster innovation; I would place Japan and Korea in this category. Both societies do not encourage entrepreneurs as much as comradeship and loyalty to a large organization-- generally a multinational corporation, a university or a government department. You are much more likely to find a female scientist at UCSF (University of California-San Francisco) than in any major Korean or Japanese lab, and as a result much of the talent in both nations is squandered because the brains are in female bodies. (We have so many friends in both countries, we know this first-hand as well as via statistics.)

Korea has taken a lead in cloning technology, and has rapidly growing multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai; but if we are objective, we have to conclude that, like the Japanese, their successes are derivative of innovations begun elsewhere. This is not a reflection on the people as much as the pooling of talent and funding in major corporations. Thus we have the questionable efforts of Honda and other companies to manufacture human-like robots; at enormous expense, these firms have fashioned clumsy machines which can climb stairs in a painfully slow mimickry of human abilities, raise their arms, etc.

But these machines are fundamentally useless in the real world, toys which play well to crowds but which are incapable of doing any fiscally sensible work. Only a top-down corporation would so lavishly fund such a dead-end technology. Similarly, there were a number of "scare books" in the mid-80s touting the Japanese government's push for a "fifth generation" artificial intelligence which would leapfrog American technology, leaving us in a doomed netherworld of also-rans. Have you ever bought any A.I. products from Japan? The effort was a complete waste of money. Top-down efforts at innovation simply don't work.

Not only that, but when a solitary genius does discover something in a big corporate lab, he hightails it to the U.S. if he wants to reap any rewards. Consider the man who invented the blue-green laser in Japan; he has since moved to U.C.-Santa Barbara.

I recently watched the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys about the surfers and kids in Venice, California, who launched modern skateboarding in the 70s, with a good friend in Hawaii. He wondered why so many innovations, not just technology but skateboarding, mountain biking and Leo Fender's Stratocaster electric guitar seem to begin in California. As a third-third-third resident of California and Hawaii--first third of my life in CA, next third in HI, recent third back in CA but spending lots of time in HI--this set me to pondering the same question. It has been pondered elsewhere at great length, most recently, in a book by John Markoff What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer. Markoff posits that the values of the counterculture which found such fertile ground in California were the direct progenitor of the computer and Internet revolutions.

Which leads to a simple conclusion: future technological revolutions will not come from autocratic societies like Singapore, Malaysia, Japan or Korea (throw in France and the rest of the EU, too, for different reasons) because whatever counterculture lives in these societies is entirely marginalized, where in California it is heralded and admired.

So what makes a counter-culture? You can start with: a roving, curiosity-driven desire to question authority, to strike out on one's own, to think freely, to tolerate creativity's inherent messiness, to accept failure, however painful it might be personally, as part of the process and as part of the deal. Accepting failure, even repeated failure, isn't easy, but California is blessed with numerous successful role models--not just Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but less well-known heroes like James McKerrow, whose lab at UCSF has tackled the six worst parasitical diseases around the world--those that affect poor people in poor countries--and is close to developing treatments for three of them.

But government policy must be part of the equation in some industries, such as photovoltaic (PV) solar cells for generating electricity. Here, the U.S. is way behind--except for California, which is close to passing the "Million Solar Roofs" legislation which will subsidize the installation of solar panels on hundreds of thousands of buildings in the state. The state also funded stem cell research to the tune of $3 billion, dwarfing any other nation's research budget and neatly bypassing the Federal government's idiotic restrictions.

Counterculture and government--sounds like an unlikely, even contradictory recipe for innovation and rebirth, but it's true. Bottom line: if you're more interested in whether a person fits your idea of the right race, sex, creed, religion, sexual orientation, clothing, caste, clan or favorite flavor of ice cream, rather than what they can accomplish, then you're never going to spark any innovation, ever.

What do you get in California that you don't get elsewhere? Most importantly, a chance to succeed or fail, and admiration for the failures; but there is much else besides, for instance Ask a Scientist.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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