Statistically speaking, it appears that there’s a correlation between atheism and innovation. But my point in last week’s column was not to show that atheists are more innovative. My goal was to try to hypothesize what the underlying causation might be.
I don’t really care if atheists, or Buddhists -- or Seventh Day Adventists, for that matter -- are more innovative. What really interests me is what's unique about an environment in which both atheism and innovation can flourish.
Why am I so focused on innovation? Because innovation drives economic growth. In any formula measuring economic performance, innovation always equals N. It’s a very big deal -- the biggest.
That means the conditions that lead to innovation are worth noting. And I started on the national scale for a reason. Sometimes, it helps to change our perspective if we’re exploring the “why” of a question. Either pulling back to the macro or zooming in to the micro allows us to see things we may not see when we remain stuck in our current context. So, what can we learn about the conditions of innovation from the world’s most innovative countries?
Atheism = Innovation?
Let’s look at the atheist factor. How might a lack of religion lead to a surfeit of innovation? I think it may have something to do with belief -- or rather, the lack of belief. When we believe something, we usually don’t go out of our way to prove it true. That also means we never find out it’s false. But nations that have a lot of atheists are not a very trusting lot, at least when it comes to things like government and other institutions.
There was a moderately negative correlation (r=-0.4425) between trust in national institutions and innovation, according to my calculations in last week's post. Atheists are skeptics. And when it comes to innovation, skepticism is very healthy.
If we looked back to Alex Pentland’s ideas about Social Physics, we need two types of social interactions: exploration and engagement. The first of these is where innovation comes from. And skeptics are more exploratory than the trustful. They probe the unknown rather than rely on their beliefs. As Alex Pentland says in his book "Social Physics," “If you can find many such independent thinkers and discover that there is a consensus among a large subset of them, then a really, really good trading strategy is to follow the contrarian consensus.”
It’s not just skepticism, however, that drives innovation. It’s also ideological diversity. You need a social network that encompasses a lot of different experiences and points of view. The broader the spectrum of ideas, the more likely that you’ve captured something that approximates the truth somewhere in that spectrum. In your own organization, if you can trade monolithic beliefs for a healthy respect for ideas that may not mirror your own, you’ve probably laid the groundwork for innovation.
Not so many years ago, an organization I was part of called a rather rushed retreat. We gathered in a posh ski resort for a brainstorming session. All the top managerial talent was present. The CEO took the stage and called on us to be innovative. But he, like most managers, did not encourage diversity. Rather, he believed unity was the way to innovate.
“No one can go rogue!” he preached from the corporate pulpit. In other words, “No one can disagree with me.”
If this CEO (who has since stepped down) had looked at countries like Sweden, Japan, or South Korea, he might have realized that sometimes, “going rogue” is exactly what you need to come up with a new idea.