One common mistake that innovators make is to focus only on the future, without regard to the present or the past. Innovation is about making ideas real to create value for people. No matter how revolutionary your idea is, it has to work in the real world to create value, and both of those depend on understanding the present and the past.
Here are two quotes I’ve run across recently that illustrate this point. The first is from Kim Wilkins in the Afterward of her outstanding book The Year of Ancient Ghosts (page 254):
There is a tendency to see the Middle Ages as a long way off; at the far end of a spyglass. We aren’t medieval; we’ve become modern, rational. We’ve superceded what we were in that “dark age”. But just like a spyglass, the medieval folds up inside the modern. It inhabits us even as we try to disavow its proximity, its persistence, its always-there-ness.
It’s a great book, and you should read it. I love that metaphor of the spyglass. And it’s true – the past is always present in our new ideas.
The second quote comes from John Keane in his excellent book The Life and Death of Democracy (page 876):
The working formula I use is straightforward: people inevitably misunderstand the present when they live in ignorance of the past. In every line, this book tries to impress on readers that the future of democracy depends upon the past, which is always at work in the present; and it reminds them of what we would collectively lose if the world foolishly allowed democracy to slip through its hands, to wither away, or to be killed off by its rising numbers of opponents.
The larger point that Keane is making is that there is nothing inevitable about the spread of democracy. It is an institution created by people, and like all such institutions, we must work to maintain it and help it grow.
We often think of new ideas battling older ones. And yes, as new ideas spread, some older ideas lose strength. But overall, I think that it’s more productive to think about ideas building up on each other, like this:
When we look at the history of innovation, it becomes clear that we can’t create valuable new ideas without building on old ones. Think about the example of computers – the device that you’re reading this on is part of a line of ideas that actually goes back thousands of years.
To innovate, we need to be able to imagine a better world. But at the same time, we have to be aware of what has come before.
To create the future, we must understand the past.