How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking

What is innovation? How can one set out to achieve it?

My book How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking has recently been published by Princeton University Press (Oct 2021) . In it I formulate the four key principles of innovation, drawing on examples taken from the most consistently innovative nation of antiquity, ancient Greece (8th to 3rd centuries BC).


The word Eureka itself is the ancient Greek for ‘I’ve found (the answer)’ – or more colloquially, ‘got it!’ The story is told that Archimedes of Syracuse (3rd century BC), one of the greatest mathematicians and inventors of all time, used it when the solution to a problem about how to measure the density of an object clicked into place. Allegedly he was in the public baths when the answer came to him; as his body displaced the water, he realised that an object of identical weight but greater density (such as a gold bar) would displace much less water. The story goes that he jumped up and ran home naked and dripping wet, yelling “eureka, eureka!” with excitement.

How to Innovate

Not all innovation comes about as the result of a ‘Eureka moment’. But innovators who puzzle hard over problems often find that the solution occurs to them when they relax or engage in an activity that takes them away focussing narrowly on the problem at hand.  Often it’s the combination of two apparently unrelated experiences that changes one’s perspective.

Such a change of perspective can, of course, be brought about if one engages imaginatively with a time and a culture far removed from our own, such as that of ancient Greece.

My book does not go into detail about the kind of innovation that modern corporations and business schools use as their favoured examples (3M’s post-it note, Swatch’s switch to fashion, Procter and Gamble’s Swiffer brush, etc.). Instead, it asks how there arose in ancient Greece the intellectual and imaginative innovations that have changed our whole cultural landscape – the creation of the alphabet, the invention of literature and theatre, the development of canons of representational art, and so on. Such world-altering and vision-changing innovations evoke and illustrate four timeless and effective principles and mechanisms for creating the new:

1 Creating the conditions for innovation
2 Innovation as adaptation
3 Innovation as cross-fertilisation
4 Innovation as disruption

All innovation partakes of all these principles in myriad forms and combinations. They can be applied in areas ranging from business, technology, and education to music, art and even personal life. The exciting possibilities of innovation can thus be brought not only into our workplace or business, but into our homes and our daily activities.

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