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Still learning from the Ancient Greeks

There are still things we can learn from the Ancient Greeks. How they managed to make sure that innovations were accepted, for example. A group of classics scholars, led by Leiden, will be carrying out research on this question funded by the largest ever NWO subsidy.

It's an issue that she can still get worked up about. Ineke Sluiter, Professor of Greek Language and Literature at Leiden University, was involved with the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) when in 2012 nine Top Sectors were designated and the Top Consortia for Knowledge and Innovation were appointed. 'It was all about technology. I really thought, it can't be possible that whole fields of knowledge are excluded.' Five years later she has been proven right with an NWO Gravitation Award of 18.8 million euros which will enable her and a large group of researchers to carry out the 'Anchoring Innovation' programme. Classicists at five universities, brought together in the OIKOS research school, will spend the coming ten years working on this research. This is the first time that Humanities has received an award in this category.  

Classical scholars being awarded millions of euros to carry out research on innovation processes is something that not everyone will see as a logical choice. Is there still anything left to learn from the Ancient Greeks and Romans? A lot, provided you don't narrow 'innovation' down to just technical discoveries. 


Sluiter: ‘If we look at it in terms of anchoring, we can introduce a new perspective to a number of issues that we as classicists have always had to deal with. For example, Greek democracy, which is radically new on all fronts. How did the Athenians understand what they were doing?' If you then look through the lens of anchoring, you see processes that were not previously so obvious, she explains. ‘But they do explain why people still think, "Oh, yes. That's ours." The Greek population was divided into ten groups for voting in elections. Each of these groups was attached to a mythological character. That helps make something new feel at the same time familiar.' 

How is that significant for us? It shows us that an innovation needs to be anchored in existing concepts and practices, is the response from Sluiter and her colleague and co-applicant Miguel John Versluys, Professor of Classical and Mediterranean Archaeology. New products or processes have to resonate with people if they are to be adopted. That means that people have to integrate them into what is already there, into existing procedures, values, norms, and customs. But that integration process isn't so easy if the old, more familiar practice and the new unknown idea are too far apart: the process of merging the two has to be as smooth as possible. If we can achieve that, the likelihood that innovation will be firmly anchored is much greater.

Old and trusted

Another example of anchoring - also from the fifth century BC - is the introduction of coins into ancient Athens, which represented a radical change. The coins looked Athenian and, as such, trustworthy, because on one side there was the Goddess Athena and on the other the owl (with olive branch) that accompanied her as goddess of wisdom. Today, that same owl appears on Greek euro coins, which is also no coincidence. All euro coins have on one side an image that is both familiar and trusted for that specific European country. This is another example of anchoring an innovation by incorporating something old and trusted in the new design.

You only have to look around you and you will see in all kinds of new designs and technologies references to something familiar or trusted. As an example, the first electric cars have their energy input in the same place as cars that run on petrol. Or, there's also the symbols on your tablet or smartphone, such as the envelope icon for electronic mail, the telephone handset (in a text balloon) for whatsapp, the clock face for the digital clock, or the 'bookcase' where you store your e-books. Sluiter: ‘Past research on tradition and innovation has often treated the two as completely separate issues. What we're interested in is how they are related.' 

There's also the fact that when studying innovation processes, because of the technical orientation, generally too little attention is paid to the social component, says Versluys, ‘while that is often the key to whether innovations are successful or not.' That means there is work for social scientists, but not just for them, according to Versluys. 'You can only really understand innovation processes in a historical perspective. What we as experts in antiquity can add is deep history. Our long-term perspective, in combination with a focus on the social aspect, gives a completely new vision of  how innovation really works.' 

This article is a shorter version of the interview with Sluiter and Versluys that was published in our free alumni magazine Leidraad. (In Dutch)