What can Ancient Greece teach us about the Innovation Mindset?-Lorraine Marchand

Point of View
4 min readNov 1, 2023

Plenty as it turns out.

During a recent visit to Athens, Greece, and the ancient city of Ephesus outside present-day Bodrum, Turkey, I was reminded of the circa 10th to 3rd century BC innovators who have had a lasting influence on civilization. The political leader Cleisthenes of Athens founded democracy; he wanted to give the people a voice. Pericles took it a step further by advancing “radical” democracy, paying citizens for their public service. The Parthenon was built over a period of 15 years in the Acropolis (city on a hill with a population of more than 200,000) to symbolize democracy. Today, Greece is a constitutional republic and multiparty democracy, a form of government embraced by a number of nations.

Big idea thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle developed Logic which influenced modern science and mathematics. Greeks gave us the Olympics, sculpture, philosophy, and multiple forms of mathematics (there is a reason that most English rods for math forms are Greek). They also invented the gear, screw, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ, torsion catapult, use of steam to operate machinery, a chart to find prime numbers, and what is widely acknowledged to be the first computer, the Mechanism of Antikythera, which was even the centerpiece in the latest Indiana Jones movie this year, according to my Greek colleague Aris Persidis.

That’s a lot of innovation that we take for granted. Don’t you agree?

Ephesus was founded along the eastern Aegean coast had many Greek city-states at the time in the 11th century BC and is now in present-day Turkey. It is older than Pompeii, another ancient city in Naples, Italy. With a population numbering 250,000, the Ephesians developed one of the first water systems and public baths and latrines, a magnificent library, and outdoor theater.

The question then is: What characteristics did these forefathers of civilization have that enabled them to be world leaders in innovation at the time? What did it mean to have an innovation mindset in 500 BC:

  • They believed wisdom and intelligence were central to human purpose and strived to make decisions based on information.
  • They spent most of their waking hours outdoors due to the moderate climate and learned to leverage nature in their innovations. For example, the ancient Ephesians captured rainwater in a vessel and filtered the water for various uses including drinking, clothes washing and garden watering.
  • They solved real problems they encountered in day-to-day life and then distributed their new solutions to the population. Libraries, theaters, baths and latrines were all designed for public use.

And, more than 2,300 years later, what can we learn about why they failed to maintain a culture of innovation over the ensuing centuries?

In a word, it was arrogance, according to a docent at the Acropolis Museum.

Greek arrogance in world leadership may have led to division among the Greek city-states — and weakness. In successive order the Persians, Romans, Herulians conquered the Greeks and with each generation of new leadership, more of Greek culture was snuffed out. Others say that Greek innovation was passed on to the Romans. They argue that Greece survived four centuries of occupation; that it emerged with its culture and language reasonably intact demonstrates the survival instinct that’s key to the innovation mindset.

So what can current day innovators learn from the Greek experience? This:

Arrogance is the antithesis of the innovation mindset, the proverbial kiss of death for new ideas and ways of doing things to flourish. And that innovation needs to be diffused through cultures to create that all-important mindset.

So, my advice, Stay Humble. This was certainly not a problem for me as I visited and learned about the wonders of these ancient Mediterranean and Aegean civilizations. I for one wish to thank our Greek fore-bearers for their contributions to society and for their innovative mindsets. I am awed and inspired by their achievements and only hope we can learn and apply their teachings.

I am sure a scholar of ancient history may add their expert knowledge to my lay reflections. For those curious about what it takes to sustain innovation, I welcome your thoughts and observations from your own travels around the globe about innovators and innovation. We have much to learn from all countries and cultures about the innovation mindset.

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