How do you simultaneously innovate and preserve heritage?  That's a loaded question because of course, in one sense, innovation, by definition, destroys the heritage you have. 

I got asked this question in a different way a few years ago by a dean of a prominent business school and the question she asked was, "How do you make ethical decisions when there is no data on the future?"  Which is the same type of question and the answer is you're an ethical person who is running experiments into the future.  Experiments are not good or bad.  Sometimes they turn out the wrong way.  Bridges do collapse.  Products do blow up.  Drugs that save millions of people's lives often in the development stage kill people.  

This is something that you have to be very honest about.  If you're a good or moral person when you see that things start to go wrong you will make an adjustment in the innovation to make it moral, to preserve your cultural heritage, to make sure you don't tear down what is good, grand and glorious about your world.

But on the other side of it there are lots of restorationists in the world and they're the enemy of innovation.  They're the people who say anything that you do differently with this cultural tradition, with the opera, with the church you go to, with the way in which we do this at university are bad people and of course, the history of innovation is strewn with people who brought the tribe forward, that brought the group forward, but during their time were greatly maligned.

So I don't want anybody to think that the road of the innovator is easy.  The road of the innovator is incredibly difficult because you're swimming against convention.  Hopefully you have some fond regard for the heritage you came from and hopefully you have some ethical basis by which to innovate because there are no good or bad tools.  There are good and bad people.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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