12 Feb 2009


New ideas are like mutations. In Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras illustrated how companies that encouraged new ideas outperformed those that explicitly avoided changes. The mutations allow the companies to change over time and face up new challenges. In Chinese history, many dynasties upheld the belief that ancestral decrees should never be disobeyed, and headed towards ruin when the environment changed.

Therefore, I cannot fully support those who reject all new policies such as the education reform and ward admission system. Of course, this is not to say that the results of these new policies are gratifying. In fact they aren’t. Supporters of conservative approach may point out that though the dynasties collapsed, they had each lasted for several centuries. In contrast, Wang Mang (王莽) established the Xin Dynasty (新朝) and was well known as a creative politician and scholar. He was described as a ruler who announced a decree in the morning and changed it in the evening (朝令夕改). The empire only lasted from 9 to 23 AD. In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explained the cost of progress (or change):

‘People tend to infer that because some inventions have revolutionized our lives that inventions are good to endorse and we should favour the new over the old. I take the opposite view. The opportunity cost of missing a “new new thing” like the airplane and the automobile is minuscule compared to the toxicity of all the garbage one has to go through to get to these jewels (assuming these have brought some improvement to our lives, which I frequently doubt).’

This leads us to fundamental questions – Does the outcome depend on the quality of the mutations? Is there an optimal mutation rate?

If we turn to Nature for an answer, the first question is obsolete. Mutations are random processes. History tells us that bad ideas outnumber good ones. Great minds do not guarantee better ideas. We only know that bad ideas by great people usually result in worse disasters (think about Karl Marx). So we have to accept the co-existence of good and bad ideas.

Similarly, microorganisms with the highest mutation rate are the most robust. HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses can all produce mutations at any point in the genome within one day. They are also very successful in developing drug resistant mutants.

Then what went wrong? Why do the government and some institutions do badly even though the officials bombard us with innovative ideas all the time?

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