To Create the Future, We Must Understand the Past

ideas don't fight

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 We’ve superceded what we were in that “dark age”.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.

ideas don't fight

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:

ideas building

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.

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “To Create the Future, We Must Understand the Past

  1. I think in order to look honestly in the past, you need to have a very confident leadership attitude. Having a strong leader in innovative efforts is extremely important. Usually, this fact is neglected, since looking back in a honest manner is demanding a high level of reflexion and openness…

    I wrote a short article about innovation leadership, I hope its ok if I put a link in here – if not pls delete and accept my apologies..:-)

  2. My name is Youssef Hassan Mohamed and i am 17 years old , and i am someone who is thinking about how can we can make a better life and a great future. Now i am preparing for EXPO2020 in Dubai
    i really a help and i am thinking about a big change in everything
    and i making a team and what i want to do and my team
    is if somone of us is intersted at technology and other in design or anything
    we want to connect and put both design and technology together and bring a product that would help people
    live a better life
    the other thing is we want people to make people be creative by our product and ideas
    so i want to make a big change not only in the way people live , i want to build a good generations not only one generation
    Thanks for your time
    and i hope and wish i can take a reply
    Thank you :)

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