Innovation in the Caucasus – Part II – The Republic of Georgia
This is the second article in a three-part series that focuses on innovation in the three countries of the Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. This article provides an examination of innovation in the Republic of Georgia.
The Republic of Georgia
What it lacks in terms of the global diaspora of Armenia and the oil and gas wealth of Azerbaijan, the small country of Georgia makes up for with the intestinal fortitude of its inhabitants and a natural geographic beauty that is unsurpassed in the region. Although all three of the countries of the Caucasus possess striking mountain scenery, the land in Georgia is definitely the most stunning. Moreover, its inhabitants exude a pride of nationhood and a willingness to fight for their independence against the strongest of enemies. Indeed, of the three countries, Georgia is the only one who has fought a recent war against a former and resurgent global superpower (Russia), and whose very existence is constantly under threat by its former occupier. Today, twenty percent of Georgia’s territory is occupied by Russia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and Georgia is on guard on a daily basis to prevent further incursions. Yet the country perseveres, and its history of highland irregulars fighting against incursions from all directions suggests that this country will not easily be subjugated by any outside power. Given the warrior-like spirit of the Georgian people, not surprisingly many of its examples of innovation lessons are related to conflict.
King Erkele II
The eastern region of Georgia, known as Kakheti, is best known today for its winemaking but it also was the seat of one of the most influential kings in Georgian history, King Erkele II. From 1744 to 1762 Erkele II ruled over eastern Georgia and although his initial kingship was granted by the Persian Shah, he evolved his regime into an autonomous region which unified and ruled over eastern Georgia for the first time in three-hundred years. Erkele II modernized Georgia and sought an alliance with Russia in 1783, though his reign ultimately succumbed to a Persian invasion in 1795.
In depictions of Erkele II, the Georgian King is shown wearing a Persian-style turban as his headdress rather than traditional Georgian garb. Presumably Erkele II felt more comfortable in this type of hat than that worn by his fellow countrymen. Legend has it that one day he was walking through a village in his Persian attire when a girl perched in a tree saw what she thought to be an invading foreigner below her (based on the Persian headdress). The girl threw a plum and achieved a direct hit on Erkele II, not realizing that it was her sovereign and not an invader. The villagers grew concerned that the King would vent his wrath on the girl and her family, but instead of striking back at them, the King gave the girl a medal of honor for her bravery in confronting someone she thought was an enemy.
Innovation Perspective – An innovator should recognize that some of the most valuable feedback he or she can obtain is that which is critical of one’s efforts. If one seeks feedback that is exclusively positive, one will miss out on the opportunity to identify flaws in one’s approach. Those flaws will certainly be exposed at a later date, whether in subsequent internal reviews or, more ominously, in the marketplace. An innovator should seek input from as many people as possible who can shed light on the flaws to one’s approach and should not be afraid of negative feedback. As in the case of King Erkele II and the village girl, an innovator should award those who are bold enough to challenge the common thinking.
A frequent sight when traveling throughout Georgia are long, candy-like colored strings of fruit and nuts known as churchkela. Given its history of winemaking, over the centuries Georgia has enjoyed bounteous harvests of grapes, though not all of the grape juice is needed for wine. Georgian artisans developed a method to take their leftover grape juice, add flour, and form a thick substance that starts as a liquid but eventually hardens into a solid that is similar to a chewy fruit treat. The artisans would then take a handful or walnuts, almonds, or raisins and thread them onto a string about a foot long and dip the string with the nuts into the grape juice and flour liquid mixture. The resulting concoction would be left to dry while hanging from a rack. Yet the churchkela was more than just a treat – it was a serious nourishment used by soldiers. The snack was high in calories because of the grape juice and nuts, had vitamin C, and could be stored in paper for two years without refrigeration. Soldiers could carry a lot of nutrition in a small space and did not have to take any steps to prepare the churchkela before consuming it. Even today, one sees rack after rack of churchkela in the open air in cities and on the side of the road and one can safely eat these treats without any concerns about food safety. The taste is excellent and can best be described as a fruit rollup with nuts inside.
Innovation Perspective – A constant area of focus for innovators is the elimination of waste. This approach received particular attention in the lean manufacturing movement of the 1990s, with engineers trained to engage in kaizen (continuous improvement) in their processes with a relentless pursuit of eliminating muda (waste) wherever possible. While eliminating waste is an important goal in and of itself, an innovator should also think about how to divert waste products into alternative processes that can be used for other purposes, as would be the case with a landfill that converts its methane gas into an energy source (rather than flaring it into the sky). In the example of the churchkela, the Georgians over the centuries have taken by-products of their grape harvests and combined these waste products into extremely useful snacks that enhanced the quality of life of their residents and soldiers.
Georgia’s capital was once located in the small town of Mtskheta, at the confluence of the Kura and Aragvi rivers northwest of the present capital of Tbilisi. Mtskheta is home to one of the holiest buildings in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, known as the Cathedral of the Living Pillar. According to legend, the church was founded in the 4th century A.D. to commemorate the site of a series of amazing events that occurred in Mtskheta. A Georgian of Jewish descent named Elias lived in Jerusalem at the time that Jesus was crucified. Elias purchased the robe Jesus was wearing at the time of his crucifixion from a Roman soldier and brought the sacred relic back to his hometown of Mtskheta. Elias’s sister, Sidonia, grasped the robe but was overcome with grief and died, whereupon Elias became unable to remove the robe from her grip. Sidonia was buried with the robe and eventually an enormous cedar tree grew from her gravesite. Many years later Saint Nino, the patron Saint of Georgia, ordered that a church be built on the site of Sidonia’s grave using the cedar tree to craft pillars for this new church. Amazingly, one of the pillars made from the cedar tree levitated into the heavens and disappeared. Saint Nino prayed through the night and the pillar eventually returned. According to local lore, the cedar pillar emitted a liquid that cured people of diseases, thus the name of the church became “sveti” (pillar) and “tskhoveli” (life-giving).
Over the years the church on this spot was rebuilt several times, though the current church has its origins in 1010 A.D. when King Giorgi I ordered the architect Arsakidze to build a large cathedral at the site. The cathedral possesses an interesting design element. To the right side of the altar sits a small room with two confessional cabins. In the room there is a small door several feet above the ground who purpose seems a bit obscure. According to historians, the door opens to a tunnel that leads directly to a chamber that the King himself would occupy. The King’s chamber was as close as possible to the altar under the pretense that he wanted to be as close as he could be to the sacred space while contemplating the divine. Yet the King was also motivated by a more secular purpose. When his fellow courtiers or government officials went to confess to a priest in the room next to the altar, the King would ensure that the small door was left open so the sound from the confessional would echo into his chamber. This permitted him to overhear what those around him were confessing to and could be useful in enabling him to blackmail an opponent or to detect a possible conspiracy before it began.
Innovation Perspective – Cyber security is of the utmost importance for anyone working in the innovation space. The information that an innovator possesses would be extremely valuable to any competitor, whether that information provides details about a new product or plans to go to market. When one is working in one’s lab or headquarters facility, one understandably has a tendency to let down one’s guard and converse freely with colleagues about sensitive matters. Moreover, because an innovator is always working on innovations, each individual piece of information loses its significance. In other words, since everything one works with is sensitive, it is difficult to consider one piece of information any more valuable to protect than any other. When one is outside of the office, the dangers increase. As a rule, innovators should not work on any aspect of their projects in public places, even if they have taken precautions with screen protective films or code words or using VPNs. The lesson of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is that one should assume that someone is always listening, even in a place that one should ostensibly feel safe, such as at a confessional.
As is the case with Catholicism, one of the most popular activities for Georgian Orthodox Christians when visiting a church is to light a candle and leave it burning in the church in memory of a loved one who has passed away, or in prayer for another individual in need. During the Soviet era, in an attempt to remove the influence of religion on society, authorities closed the churches in Georgia, padlocking the doors and forcing religious practices underground. The Soviets also whitewashed many of the beautiful frescoes on the walls of Georgian churches. Yet during this period, many believers would find ways to enter the closed churches to continue to practice their religion. Because there were no candle-holders available in the locked churches, the believers would light their candles and melt enough wax so that the candles would stick to the walls of the church. Unfortunately, the flame would leave a black burn mark on the stone wall of the church. Yet these black marks, as well as some of the un-restored whitewashed frescoes remain visible today, serving as a stark reminder of the past.
Innovation Perspective – Failure is a powerful tool for the innovator because it serves as a reminder that the innovator tried to accomplish something that, in the end, proved unattainable. Failure can remind innovators that they need to push the boundaries of their field and try things that may not actually work. Failure for an innovator is a badge of honor that signifies courage rather than a sign of incompetence. Georgians understand that their hold on independence as a small country with powerful neighbors is tenuous and requires a constant diligence. The burn marks and whitewashed frescoes on the walls of their prominent churches remind them of what can happen if they lose their freedom and their right to worship as they choose.
Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument
A similar reminder of the Soviet era sits high in the mountains alongside the Georgian Military Road. This long, winding, and narrow mountain road runs from the Georgian capital Tbilisi to the Russian Border and follows the path that invaders and traders used for centuries to traverse from the Caucasus into Russia and then Europe. In 1783, Georgia and Russia signed the Treaty of Georgievsk through which Russia guaranteed the territorial integrity of Georgia and promised to defend Georgia against future Persian and Ottoman incursions. Over time, Russia became more involved with the Caucasus and recognized the importance of the Georgian Military Road as a means of transporting troops and supplies from the Russian heartland into the Caucasus. When Tsar Alexander I annexed Georgia in 1801, Russia began a decades-long project to improve the road, with work culminating in 1876. The Russians continued work on the road well into the 20th century, including using German prisoners of war from World War II to build numerous concrete tunnels to protect cars and trucks from avalanches in the winter. Today the road has hardly changed from that period, consisting mostly of winding two-lane tarmac and iron or steel bridges crossing fast-running, cold rivers coming down from the steep mountainsides. The route is heavily trafficked by lorries running between Russia and Armenia, and when one of these trucks breaks down it sits in the one lane of the roadway until it can be repaired or towed since there are hardly any emergency lanes to speak of on the Military Road.
The highest point on the roadway is Jvar Pass at 7,815 feet above sea level. Just past this point sits an enormous concrete and stone monument perched on a hillside overlooking a deep gorge cut by a running river, with tall waterfalls in the background. The monument is about 30 feet tall and in the shape of a semi-circle with colorful tile artistic illustrations on its inside. The monument is known as the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument or Treaty of Georgievsk Monument and was built by the Soviets in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk. The monument commands a splendid view of the area, especially the Devil’s Valley over 1,000 feet below. The colorful tile mosaics on the inside of the monument depict stories from Georgian and Russian history as well as examples of when the two countries worked together for a common goal (e.g., World War II). Yet the monument itself is quite controversial and the Georgian government considered tearing it down after independence, especially given the hostile state of relations between Georgia and Russia. Just a few miles away from the monument across a steep river gorge sits the Russian-occupied Georgian territory of South Ossetia, so as a symbol of Russian-Georgian friendship the monument rings quite hollow in the present time.
Even the Treaty of Georgievsk itself is quite contentious because after the treaty was signed, Persian forces invaded Georgia in 1795 but Russian refused to send any troops to help Georgia, as the Tsar’s forces were busy fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish Wars. As a result, Georgia was defeated and occupied by the Persians. When Russia finally came around to assist Georgia in 1801, it instead occupied and annexed Georgia, incorporating it into the Russian empire. With this sordid history, one would think that an independent Georgia would remove the monument and replace it with something that solely focuses on Georgia. Indeed, in Tbilisi one sees very few signs in Russian (most have been removed), whereas in Armenia the Russian-language signs are still easy to spot.
Despite all this negativity, the monument remains in place and is a heavily-visited tourist site. Georgians say that the monument survived for two reasons. First, they see it as a good source of education for the Georgian people to remind them of the Soviet era. The mosaics on the monument are definitely in the soaring propaganda style of the Soviet Union, which is a sharp contrast to actual relations. Tearing the monument down would destroy something that still has utility as a teaching tool to explain how propaganda worked and why it was so insidious. Second, the Georgian Military Road is heavily trafficked by Russians, who can easily cross the border into Georgia to vacation in that country or Armenia. As much as the Russians are disliked, they do bring in hard currency to purchase goods and services and help the Georgian economy. All along the roadside of the Georgian Military Road one sees vendors selling Georgian wine (which is highly prized in Russia) as well as other Georgian specialties, such as the Borjomi sparkling mineral water that was the exclusive drink of the Politburo members in Soviet times. Having the monument reminds the Russians who pass by (and stop for a photo), that despite current tensions these two countries do have a history of friendship.
Innovation Perspective – No matter how creative one’s ideas might be, an innovator is not immune to market forces. An innovator should keep the end customer in mind in whatever one is working on, including periodic checkpoints with colleagues or others who can legitimately represent the customer’s point of view in assessing a new offering. While diving deeply into a new innovation, one can sometimes get lost in the intricacies of the new idea and lost sight of the end goal, which is to create something of value that customers will desire. No matter how brilliant one’s innovative solution might be, if it does not fulfill a customer need in the marketplace, then it will be of very limited utility. The case of the Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument is a reminder that no matter what the externalities, in the end the customer will have a great deal to say about how one operates.
Georgia’s most famous artist is Niko Pirosmani, who grew up a poor peasant in the Kakheti region and struggled throughout his life to earn a living as a painter. Pirosmani took many side jobs painting houses and commercial signs for stores, but mostly lived a life of abject poverty and died of malnutrition and liver disease in 1918. Pirosmani achieved prominence as an artist well after his death, with collectors piecing together around 200 of his artworks. He specialized in primitive art, also known as naïve art, which is performed by untrained and unskilled artists but because of this lack of skill the art takes on an appearance that is unlike any other works of its time. In other words, the art has a uniqueness to it that a more traditionally-trained artist might not be able to achieve. Moreover, Pirosmani also took advantage of a simple technique to give his art an unexpected novelty – instead of a typical white canvas he frequently chose to paint on a black canvas. The resulting works possess a depth that is strikingly different from what one is used to seeing in oil paintings and has likely contributed to his posthumous success as an artist.
Innovation Perspective – Simple inversion is a well-known technique for the innovator to develop a new approach to a problem. Looking at something from a completely different perspective can provide the innovator with insights that might not be attainable by merely looking the same way for a longer period of time. In other words, intense concentration and expenditure of resources while following the same pathway over and over is unlikely to yield new thinking. Only by completely changing one’s perspective can an innovator open up his or her mind to alternative ideas. Pirosmani demonstrates this quite effectively with his use of the black canvas, and when combined with his primitive art techniques, the results are visually stunning and truly innovative.
A good example of the benefits of simple theoretical inversions comes from the field of economics. A new approach to monetary policy, known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), has a small number of advocates but is gaining momentum as a way of understanding the relationship between government spending, taxation policies and inflation. According to traditional economic theory, governments collect taxes from constituents and companies then use that money to determine how much the government will spend in its annual budget. If a government spends more money than it brings in from taxes, then the country can experience inflation, in which a larger amount of money is chasing a smaller number of goods, leading prices in the economy to increase.
MMT flips this approach on its head and proposes that the exact opposite is happening. Government decides how much it is going to spend first, then collects taxes as a way of controlling inflation. This suggests that government can spend more than one would think it can spend based on annual collected taxes. Taxes in this model are not the source of government income but, rather, a means the government uses to control the supply of money in the economy by bringing back into its coffers some of the money it created in the first place in the form of government spending. While traditional economists consider this approach to be a formula for undesirable inflation, the MMT alternative theory nonetheless provides an interesting, innovative way of looking at government spending from an entirely new direction.
Georgia lays claim to the tile of the world’s oldest winemaking region, and archaeologists hanve discovered winemaking materials that are over 8,000 years old in the area. Throughout history, Georgian wine has been valued as one of its most lucrative exports and the quality of the wine exceeded anything else in the region. Visitors to the Soviet Union during its heyday would seek out Georgian wine in Soviet restaurants, as Communist Party officials had decreed that Georgia should industrialize its wine production to supply the entire USSR with wine. While this took advantage of Georgia’s excellent climate for growing grapes in the Kakheti region, it moved Georgia away from its past method of winemaking using underground clay pots.
Worldwide there are basically two ways to make wine: the European method, which uses charred wooden barrels, and the Georgian method, which uses special clay pots (known as qvevri) that are buried underground for fermentation. The vast majority of wine in the world is created using the European method, and the taste we associate with wine today comes from the combination of fermentation along with aging in the charred wooden barrels we see stored in vineyard cellars around the world. The Georgian method involves pressing the grapes in a clay pot that is about five feet tall then placing this concoction above ground for about a month to begin the fermentation process. Making the clay pots requires months of work by skilled craftsmen, as special types of lime-rich clay are required so the lime in the clay kills bacteria in the wine. The qvevri method calls for the skins and pits to remain inside the pot, which is shaped with a point at the bottom where the solid sediments from the wine will settle and can be removed later. After the first month above ground, the clay pot is then buried in the ground for an additional six months, where the earth provides a relatively constant temperature for continued fermentation. After six months the wine is moved to a new clay pot and sealed again. The entire process can be accomplished with no need for climate control (the soil maintains the temperature) and the result is a unique flavor or wine that is best described as “earthy,” but is very unique and quite good.
Georgia’s traditional winemaking techniques came to the forefront in 2006 when Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the midst of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts with Georgia, implemented a ban on Russian imports of Georgian wine, falsely claiming that there were rampant health violations in the Georgian wine industry. Since Russia was Georgia’s biggest export market, the winemakers in Kakheti suffered terribly. Given the competitive nature of the global wine marketplace, Georgian producers had to come up with a plan to find new export markets for their wine. They quickly realized that while they might not be able to compete with other wines made with the European method, they did have a unique advantage in terms of the clay pot method, as few other countries in the world had this capability. Georgia leveraged this uniqueness to build new ties with foreign wine buyers and used the qvevri wine to open the door for their European method wine, which was improving in quality as well. Russia revoked the Georgian wine ban in 2013 and now accounts for 60 percent of Georgia’s wine exports, but Georgia is now also firmly positioned in the global wine marketplace because of its unique qvevri winemaking skills and its exceptional European-style wines as well.
Innovation Perspective – One of the last places that innovators tend to look for new thinking is in an old way of doing things. Innovators assume that because of continuous improvement, one is always making positive changes to processes so that any information about how something used to operate is of limited utility. While this might be the case in some instances, it does not mean that reviewing old materials will never provide insights into solving a new challenge. After all, if one is not familiar with how things used to work in a process, then reviewing that “old” material will actually seem new to the innovator and may spawn new ideas about how to solve a problem. It may be that the problem one is trying to solve is something that the company encountered years ago and solved in a certain way, but one cannot see that change now because it evolved into several different forms over the years. This approach suggests the importance of maintaining historical information on business decisions and processes. While this was difficult in the age of printed materials lining shelves in an office, in the digital era this is something that is much more achievable, and innovators simply need to add a step to their investigations in which they review old approaches and materials as part of their search for new solutions. They may find, like the Georgian winemakers, that their older techniques provide a value that supersedes even that of their newer techniques given the right circumstances in the marketplace.
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Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.
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