How Can We Measure Innovation And Creativity?
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March 02, 2012, 11:19 PM
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As long as I can remember, the Japanese have been poor-mouthing their lack of creativity and innovation (and, by vague extension, that of East Asians in general). Presumably, they are right, but I`ve always wondered if there wasn`t an element of strategy in this proclivity: "Don`t you creative Western geniuses worry about us poor imitative Nipponese. We could never come up with those amazing annual model year changes in sheet metal like Chevy does! We`ll just work on our boring little just-in-time manufacturing thingie — which we totally got from an American, Edward Deming, by the way — while you Westerners do all your creative wonders."

When commenters get into long debates about whether Asians or Asian-Americans are less creative / innovative than others, I find myself impressed by the certainty with which opinions are offered because I have a hard time coming up with data for, say, this century.

Creativity is clearly something that`s terribly important, but it`s also extremely hard to measure without the benefit of a long lag time to give historical perspective. 

For example, who was the more significantly creative American information theorist of the 1940s: Claude Shannon or Norbert Wiener? These days, well-informed people would likely say Shannon, who has been getting more famous throughout my lifetime. But if in the 1950s you`d asked an intelligent generalist such as, say, Robert Heinlein, he likely would have said Wiener. (See James Gleick`s 2011 book The Information for a current assessment of the Shannon-Wiener rivalry.) Wiener had been famous since his days as a child prodigy (getting his Harvard Ph.D. in math at age 17), and his cybernetic perspective was more immediately appealing to a mechanical engineering-minded era. 

This is not to downplay Wiener, who did lots of other stuff, just that Shannon`s work has proven more enduringly influential.

Can historians measure creativity with some degree of objectivity? I think so, for a reason that I outlined in my review of Charles Murray`s Human Accomplishment:

Can we trust these data? The scholars upon whom Murray relies have their personal and professional biases, but, ultimately, their need to create coherent narratives explaining who influenced whom means that their books aren’t primarily based on their own opinions but rather on those of their subjects. For example, the best single confirmation of Beethoven’s greatness might be Brahms’s explanation of why he spent decades fussing before finally unveiling his First Symphony: “You have no idea how it feels for someone like me to hear behind him the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.” 
In Paul Johnson’s just-published and immensely readable book Art: A New History, you can see how even this most opinionated of historians must adapt himself to the judgments of artists. Much of the book’s entertainment value stems from Johnson’s heresies, such as his grumpy comment on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: “No one ever wished the ceiling larger.” Still, Johnson can’t really break free from conventional art history because he can’t avoid writing about those whom subsequent artists emulated. 
For example, Johnson finds Cézanne (who ranks 10th in Murray’s table of 479 significant artists) painfully incompetent at the basics of his craft. Yet, Johnson has to grit his teeth and write about Cézanne at length because he “was in some ways the most influential painter of the late nineteenth century because of his powerful (and to many mysterious) appeal to other painters …”
(Of course, it could all just be a giant conspiracy going on for generations ...)

Anyway, that raises the question of how can we measure trends in creativity and innovation without long lag times? Murray, for example, halted most of his analysis in 1950 to avoid recent fads that won`t stand the test of time. 

But, looking back in history, we can see sudden upsurges or declines in particular societies. For example, the traditional English view is that victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 set off a great age of English cultural accomplishment, of which Shakespeare is only the most famous. Maybe that`s an exaggeration, but that has long been the standard story.

So, for this problem of measuring 21st Century innovation, I would propose that as an approximation, somebody do a surname analysis of the founders of technology firms that succeeded with initial public offerings of at least some size. This lacks the historical perspective, but it has the advantage that investors put real money down on their bets on what would be a successful and enduring innovation. Anybody want to try this? Or is there something better to measure?

P.S. A commenter kindly points to two papers that provide data on this subject. One by Ola Bengtsson and David H. Hsu looks at 1780 pairs of tech start-up founders and venture capitalists over about a decade centering around about 1998-2007. These are start-ups that at least got VC funding. About 48% of the start-ups are in California and 18% in Massachusetts.

Among founders, a surname analysis shows 3% Chinese and 7% Indian. There may be some miscellaneous Asians that they didn`t break out. (Among venture capitalists, they find 4% Chinese and 4% Indian.)

Another analysis came up with 87% of founders white, 12% Asian, 1% black. These are both national surveys. The percent Asian in California is higher according to the second study: 18%.