Sir, Armand D'Angour's article "What’s new? Some answers from Ancient Greece" in your summer issue (Observer 221/222) provides a refreshing perspective on the role of innovation in Western society then and now. I can only agree that the classical principles of innovation – that it is dynamic; that there are different levels of innovation; that context matters in defining innovation – remain valid, especially for today’s policymakers.
But the author’s conclusion that there is perhaps "nothing new under the sun" seems to dismiss some important differences between innovation in Athens and in Silicon Valley. There are epistemological differences between innovations in culture and thought and those in science and technology. The progress of thought does not necessarily follow the laws of scientific knowledge and technological evolution.
For example, to what extent is the invention of democracy, if we consider it to have arisen out of a long evolution of human civilisation, comparable to a technological innovation that results from empirical experience or an active search for efficiency? Perhaps the most significant difference is that in a competitive global economy, modern innovation has become more rapid, more market driven and characterised by extensive networks of both public and private actors and a greater reliance on scientific research than in the past.
So if for Plato innovation relied on rearranging existing knowledge, modern innovation requires not only creativity, but also new knowledge based on discovery and empirical experience. Fostering innovation thus extends beyond setting the conditions for freedom of thought and expression and requires incentives to invest in research and learning.
Mr D'Angour rightly observes the principle that innovation in one area can foster or impede innovation in another. The current focus on innovation in a few technological areas should not come at the expense of serendipity and experimentation – many of the innovations that emerged in modern times have been the by-products of unrelated and even unsuccessful quests for knowledge.
©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001