Of Shiva, Schumpeter and Innovation's Next America

Saturday, November 1, 2008 (All day)

My colleague, Judith Teitelman, consults with arts and culture organizations. She’s got a deft way with words and ascribed the term “Shiva Syndrome” to the behavior of an arts entrepreneur she once knew. It seems that, as a leader, the guy built what everyone agreed, for a time, was a magnificent, novel institution. Unfortunately, like Shiva the Hindu god, he assumed as his sole organizational province the powers of both creator and destroyer. What he nurtured, he later drove deep into an embarrassment of debt and eventual bankruptcy. From all he had once infused with such great promise, nothing meaningful survived. A tragic story, indeed, and a cautionary tale for anyone mounting a new civic enterprise who might cling so fiercely to their innovation that they end up crushing it into lifelessness.

“Beware the powers you presume,” the Shiva Syndrome would seem to warn us, “lest your own vision those powers consume.”

Indeed, both with and without the too-toxic touch of Shiva-leaders, huge and awe-inspiring forces conspire periodically to kick-start change, dismantle the status quo and launch societies in new directions. Democratic capitalism endures such buffeting better than either rigid or disorganized political economies, but the regenerative process can still unnerve citizens and leaders alike. That’s the pass at which Project 21st Century Global America seems to have arrived here in November 2008.

I take some comfort in knowing that Judith Teitelman’s now-distant acquaintance fled the waste he had laid and no longer burdens the Los Angeles civic landscape with his heedless brand of being. And I find added intellectual and historical solace in the views of an early 20th century economist by the name of Joseph Schumpeter. Building on the writings of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Schumpeter popularized and used the term “creative destruction” to describe the process of transformation that accompanies radical innovation. Americans know Innovation well. It’s the great god of our birthright, heralding a better tomorrow rising out there on the horizon. We trust it and fear it both.

As America’s petering economy scrabbles for purchase, we have little left to hope for beyond Innovation’s promise. At least until renewal kicks in full force, we’ve got to keep the community spirit from gassing off into selfishness. Doing that means relying a lot more than usual on this country's scattered and scrappy corps of social and civic entrepreneurs. They are no more immune than other mortals to the allure of Shiva’s privileges, but most in fact do orient by the three cardinal points of the enlightened civic compass: fairness, justice and equity. Believing in them and supporting their work, we can help steer and steady the nation’s laden ship as Innovation’s next America emerges.