How do you design a social environment for breakthrough innovation?

social world

The answer I wrote to this question on Quora:

Your question seems to relate to the interplay between the individual and the society, or the initial flashes of insights from the inventor, and then the mindset or psyche of the world around.

Although we’d like to think that our innovative ideas match the social environment around us, stories from the past teach us that these two approaches–breakthrough innovation and the social environment–are not always in tandem with each other. For instance, there is an account of how Richard Feynman as a child developed his own set of trigonometry notations. Although he viewed these as superior to the existing system which takes three letters to write (e.g., sin, cos, tan), the present psyche of the world is a difficult thing to change, so he eventually went back to using the notations that we still know and use today.

We can learn from this that a strong desire to innovate or change the world, also needs to be balanced with the ability of the world–as it is in its present state–to receive these ideas. While an innovator seeks to “push the envelope” of progress, sometimes creative souls go too far and are simply not understood in the present generation they are living. .

I started off by saying that there are two considerations or approaches within this one question. On the one side is the innovator and on the other is the social environment. In order to better understand this question, I’d  to introduce hopefully an easily understandable teaching from Kabbalah. Since Kabbalah is complete with thorough systems for even abstract subjects, through the utilization of these terms, hopefully we can bring this lofty discussion down to the most practical application.

In our context, the interplay between individual and society relates to the twosefirot (channels of Divine creativity) called “victory” (netzach) and “acknowledgment” (hod). Whereas “victory” relates to the active ability to innovate or invigorate the world, one of the meanings of “hod” is “echo.” Like the right and left legs of the body, while the right leg leads, the leg left waits to “echo” the movement of the right leg, in order that the body should be balanced.

Related to our present topic then, while the innovator leads with his “right leg”–moving the world, as it were, “step by step” forward, the relatively passive “left leg”–the social environment or community, moves along “step by step” in order to keep pace.

There is also an inter-inclusion between these two extremes. There is the innovator who only considerations the weight of his innovations (victory within victory), then there are those who only consider the current state of society (acknowledgment within acknowledgment).

When the individuals of the community itself are inspired to “follow the innovator” and innovate themselves, this is called acknowledgement within victory. This was the global awakening that would have been the ultimate realization of Feynman’s innovation as a child. It is one thing to innovate and have society accept the innovation, but it is altogether something different to innovate in such a way that inspires even greater levels of innovation within the individuals members that make up the community.

This is how I would answer your question then. While it is praiseworthy to innovate in such a way that benefits others–such as more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly technologies–the ultimate innovation is when those viewing these innovations, learn and understand how to better innovate themselves.

Adapted from the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhchak Ginsburgh,


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