Culture is the X factor for innovation

SINGAPORE - Singaporean art theorist Gunalan Nadarajan argues that the most effective way to innovate, or make something old fresh again, is to identify the cultural differences between you and your competitors and find ways to make the most of these differences.

Such an approach to differentiation works because:

- There is usually precious little one can do to distinguish one technology from another but differences in culture are greater and so can be used to give one an edge, something competitors elsewhere do not have easily.

- More than ever, people are attracted to that which is different from them, so the strategy of differentiating yourself culturally is likely to have a receptive audience.

- You know your culture best, so it would be easier for you to come up with follow-up innovations than it would be for those unfamiliar with what makes you who you are.

Japan has long been known for its technological expertise, especially in how advanced and humanised its robots are.

In fact, Japanese scientists at Chiba University are now developing robots to clean up the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.

Yet it's Japanese culture, not technology, that explains why Japan has shot so far ahead of others in robotics, contends Singaporean art theorist Gunalan Nadarajan.

Professor Nadarajan, 48, is the first Asian dean of the University of Michigan's School of Art and Design. He specialises in making sense of how art, science and technology intersect. He was appointed to his current post in July last year and was in town recently to give some talks and visit his family here.

The Japanese have long been comfortable with robots as their craftsmen have, since the 17th century, borrowed the idea of automated dolls from the Dutch and made them their own, he says.

Chief among Japanese society's uses for these karakuri dolls was for serving tea at home in highly ritualised ceremonies.

The head of the household would place a cup of tea on a tiny tray on the arms of the wind-up wooden karakuri contraption called chahakobi ningyo, which would then ferry it to guests. It was a way to warm up chats between host and guest.

Prof Nadarajan cites the karakuri example to argue that the surest way to cutting-edge innovation is to make the most of how one's culture is different from that of others - such as how much Japan has embraced androids as part of the essence of being Japanese.

"Technology is not separate from culture but only a facet of culture," he insists.

He argues that mining cultural differences is the best way to gain and sustain a decisive advantage over competitors from other countries because such differences are not easy for others to understand and match.

Just think of another age-old staple of Japanese culture that has seized everyone's imagination, he says, and that is sushi.

While the food item itself has become a global crowd-pleaser, the Japanese have once again linked culture to technology and produced sushi-shaped thumb drives which are now all the rage among the trendy, he says.

But how would that work for Singapore, which has a rojak (mixed salad) of cultures and so would find it hard to draw out cultural elements that are distinct from the many cultures present in its society?

Even here, Prof Nadarajan argues, there is at least one element that all communities have in common which many other cultures do not share: valuing "face".

He says: "Is Facebook the right platform for a culture that has a very different idea of face from the West? Might Singaporeans be able to establish new social-media platforms that respect how much Asians value face?"

People here already have a model of that to look to, he adds, and that is China's hit microblogging site Weibo.

"Weibo is not Google in Mandarin," he stresses, pointing out how its features are customised for a Sino-centric audience and that its coding for searches would have to be very different from Google's, simply because the language that Weibo users search in is not English.

That said, he then adds: "I'm not saying that we have to be crass and make our innovations more Confucian, Indian or Malay, or just use local wood or whatever. Otherwise, that would only be paying lip service to the effort of localising innovation."

Rather, he says, the more effective way to innovate by drawing on your own culture is to be a "critical consumer", that is, by constantly asking yourself why you are doing something a certain way, how has your culture influenced the way you are doing it and how many ways could you do something differently in any given situation.

He admits that the snag in such questioning is that one is often too close to one's culture to be able to articulate its elements in discrete ways.

So they should look to artists to do that for them.

In this, he says, even artists are having to change the way they work, by collaborating frequently and closely with those from disciplines very different from theirs, as today's complex problems can only be resolved satisfactorily with the perspectives of many experts, and not just that of a single artist, who is often egotistical to boot.

For his part, Prof Nadarajan makes it his top priority to encourage collaborations between his students and those in the "hard" disciplines of engineering and science; among others, he has an artist in residence who studied art and biology at university, went on to secure a PhD in neuroscience at Harvard University and now finds it most meaningful to work in the University of Michigan's life sciences laboratory in between painting.

"Having such transferable skills and knowledge will soon be the norm," he stresses, noting that the No. 1 skill prized by most chief executives these days is creativity.

A former dean of visual arts at the Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore - where he worked from 1996 to 2004 - he went on to become an associate dean at Pennsylvania State University's College of Arts and Architecture in 2005.

Then he became vice-provost for research and graduate studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art from 2008, after which he joined the University of Michigan last year. His wife, Dr Irina Aristarkhova, is Russian and his former Lasalle colleague. They have no children.

Now that he has been away from Singapore for a good eight years, what has he learnt in his time abroad that could enrich Singapore culture even more?

He says: "A vibrant environment for cultural production is one in which people are actively encouraged to ask about why we live and act the way we do, and what our norms are.

"Such an environment is also one where people veer away from downplaying an idea's importance."

He muses: "I can understand that as a people, we are very careful about what, how and why some things are said but our ability to grow as a culture depends on our ability to question who we are and what we are, at each critical point."

suk@sph.com.sg


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