About Elvin Lim
Elvin Lim is Dean of the Core Curriculum, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre at SMU. He held faculty positions previously at the National University of Singapore, where he was Head, Department of Political Science, and at Wesleyan University in the United States. He is the author of The Lovers' Quarrel: The Two Foundings and American Political Development (Oxford, 2014) and The Anti-intellectual Presidency (Oxford, 2008). He is a winner of the Founder’s Award of the Presidency and Executive Politics section of the American Political Science Association, and his research has been cited in Bloomberg, The Boston Globe, Forbes, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other venues.
Where Does Innovation Come From And How Do We Cultivate It?
To begin to formulate an answer, we must understand the difference in developmental phases that different societies find themselves in. Developing nations need innovation less, because the template for development has already been developed by those ahead of the game— for example, the well-known injunction to dedicate resources to education, create a competitive tax regime, etc.—so these nations need only imitate models explored elsewhere. Innovation becomes pressing only when nations mature and enter the community of the developed world, and there are no more models to follow. This is where Singapore is today. Consciously acknowledging this shift is key, because it also necessitates a paradigm shift in thinking that is the precondition for the flowering of creativity and innovation. Citizens in developing countries are for the most part striving for survival, sometimes literally for their next meal. The accompanying mindset for the survival paradigm is competition, survival of the fittest, and rapid response, as captured by the phrase, “survival instinct.” For decades Singapore has traversed this path, and this path was helpful when it was needed to get us to where we are today. But old habits can die hard, and they should if we have entered into a new milestone. For a developed country, the survival instinct is a categorical misfit for what is needed for the next phase of growth. Survival is a paradigm that befits a different (the preceding) development phase, and it can actively mitigate against the flowering of creativity and innovation. What is befitting and necessary for innovation to happen in a developed country is an acknowledged and conscious shift from survival to flourishing. If the survival paradigm emphasized competition, survival of the fittest, and rapid response, the flourishing paradigm emphasizes collaboration, inclusion of strongest and the weakest, and contemplation. Great ideas come to us not when we are in haste and insecure, but in a state of composure and equanimity.
Innovation, then, blossoms as long as we create the right conditions for it. It cannot be taught, but it can be encouraged by a conscious shift from the survival to the flourishing paradigm in the home, in classrooms, in boardrooms, and in the public square.