Innovation in Myanmar
When one thinks of innovation in Southeast Asia, the images that typically come to mind are the gleaming skyscrapers of established major cities, such as the Singapore, Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, or the new, rapidly-growing mega-cities of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) or Manila. However, for all the economic prowess of certain parts of Southeast Asia, the region also contains a number of places whose experiences in the 20th century put them on a different trajectory for the 21st century. Countries such as Cambodia, with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, and the impact of the US/Vietnam war on the country of Laos remind us that Southeast Asia is a land of great contrasts. Yet in my various innovation-related research trip-planning for the region there was always one country that intrigued me because it is the most recent to open itself to the outside world. Myanmar, formerly known in the British colonial era as Burma, is the second largest country in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), and has a recent history quite unlike its neighbors in the region.
Stretching over 1,250 miles from north to south and reaching from the Himalayan mountains to the Andaman Sea, Myanmar finds itself at the crossroads of East Asia (China), Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), and South Asia (India and Bangladesh). This country of 53 million inhabitants possesses seemingly endless natural resources, including the largest supply of teak wood in the world, incredibly valuable jade mines, petroleum and natural gas, copper and gold, and many agricultural products, including bounteous rice harvests. The country contains one of the longest and last free-flowing rivers in Asia – the Ayeyarwady. Yet despite this enormous wealth in natural resources, Myanmar remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia in terms of nominal GDP per capita ($1,244 per year), which is about one-third of that of the Philippines.
This lack of economic success is largely attributable to the political situation in the country, where from 1962 until 2010, Myanmar was effectively cut off from the outside world and ruled by a military dictatorship. After democratic political reforms in 2010-2012 and the rise in power of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015, other countries began to lift economic sanctions against Myanmar and tourists began to visit the once-isolated country in greater numbers, even though the country still is under control of the military regime.
From a tourism standpoint, Myanmar has a great deal to offer. It has perhaps the most beautiful pagoda in the world – the massive, golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It has arguably the world’s most impressive collection of temples in a single geographic location – nearly 2,000 temples of varying sizes in an around Bagan. Yangon has one of the largest collections of British colonial architecture in all of Southeast Asia. The country also has mountains, rivers, lakes, beaches, and wonderfully-friendly and charming people.
Yet just as this flow of tourists began in 2015, the tide of events turned and the country faced new scrutiny from the outside world, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, concerning the government’s mistreatment of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya population. The Myanmar government stands accused of crimes against humanity and genocide concerning its use of military force to attack, kill, and expel thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh. Many countries again called for a boycott of Myanmar, culminating in an appearance by Aung San Suu Kyi at The Hague in which she defended the actions of her country, resulting in many calling for her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.
Although the history above is a much-abridged and does not do justice to the complexity of Burmese history from the colonial times to the present, I felt it was important to write about these topics before delving into innovation in Myanmar so as not to trivialize what is happening currently in the country. Indeed, one will find that Myanmar is a country of great contrasts and complexity. I write about innovation in Myanmar not to gloss over the state of political affairs in the country but, rather, to highlight what sits behind the military government – an incredibly beautiful country with a resilient, life-affirming people whose experiences in the last half-century are so unique. Just as my travels to Myanmar were in search of ways to connect with the amazing people and places of this tragic country, so, too, I hope that this article on innovation gives readers a sense of how it is possible to find new thinking in unexpected places.
Personalize to Innovate – The Shwedagon Pagoda
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, with nearly 90% of the population adhering to the Theravada Buddhist religion, and the holiest Buddhist shrine in all of Myanmar is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The pagoda is 325 feet tall, 2,600 years old (making it the oldest in the world), and its golden spire dominates the Yangon skyline. It is said house relics from four Buddhas, including eight hairs from Gautama that were brought to Burma during the Buddha’s lifetime. The main pagoda structure is covered in gold leaf, contains over 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz, and sapphires, and is topped by a massive emerald that is positioned to catch the last rays of the setting sun. I visited in the afternoon and found myself bathed in warmth by the sun reflecting off the massive glittering gold surface of the pagoda. Without sunglasses, the glint from the golden spire was impossible to view because of its bright reflection.
The temple complex is massive, with dozens of devotional halls surrounding the main structure. Each devotional hall is decorated in an elaborate manner, with stone, jade, metal, teak, and other materials containing intricate designs. The effect of walking around the Shwedagon Pagoda is almost overwhelming, as in every direction one sees structures that possess stunning beauty and creativity. If any of these individual shrines or devotional halls were removed from the complex and placed elsewhere, they would be seen as amazing religious sites by themselves. The combination of seeing all of these in one place surrounding the stunning gold-leaf covered main pagoda is simply magnificent and takes one’s breath away. This is definitely one of the most incredible religious sites in the world and one could argue that nothing else surpasses it.
One of the unique attributes of Shwedagon is how it incorporates personal elements into its design that tie is closely to the faithful populace of the country. First, the pagoda is surrounded by birthday shrines. For the Myanmar people, the day of the week on which one is born is an important determinant of that person’s character. When visiting the pagoda, a Buddhist will walk clockwise (with right shoulder facing the shrine) until he or she reaches the smaller shrine representing the day of the week on which that person was born. He or she will then make an offering and say a prayer at the shrine, effectively connecting himself or herself to the larger structure. In addition to the day or week shrines, the Shwedagon Pagoda also incorporates at the highest point of its structure thousands of articles of jewelry donated by faithful Buddhists. People’s rings, bracelets, and other fine jewels are tied into the top of the structure in what is known as the hti (finial or umbrella). One cannot see these from 300 feet below the tower, but in detailed pictures of the structure from renovation work one can see these jewels positioned to be as close to the heavens as possible. One can imagine that thousands of Myanmar Buddhists can see the pagoda at a distance and know that their donation is sitting at the top of the structure capturing the rays of the sun.
Innovation Lesson – From an innovator’s standpoint, the personal connection is an important but sometimes forgotten characteristic of an innovation project. Innovators often think of their work at the macro scale, trying to identify a new product or service that would appeal to a wide audience. While this is certainly important from a financial standpoint, it does not mean that one should avoid thinking about how consumers will connect individually with a new product or service. As current marketplace trends towards mass customization demonstrate, consumers want to feel a connection with the products or services they are purchasing, even if that connection is only a small one. Likewise, when one is working in the process improvement area, individual impacts from a modified process need to be considered as part of the innovation work, for if a small change to a process results in greater overall efficiency but comes at great personal expense to individual steps in the process, the end result could be conflict or friction.
In Mandalay City at the Mahamuni Temple, the faithful are able to press actual gold leaf onto an enormous Buddha statue, further cementing their ties to the temple. Indeed, it is believed that the Myanmar people are the most generous Buddhists in the world, and when one travels the country and sees all the gold, stone, jade, teak, and other fine materials used in building shrines to the Buddha, one can understand how this is the case, despite the relative poverty of the population. This connection of the individual to the larger shrine is an important characteristic of the pagodas in Myanmar.
The Port of Yangon – In Remembrance of Things Past
Today when one walks along the Ayeyarwady riverfront in downtown Yangon, one finds it difficult to believe that this was once the second busiest port in the world. During the 1920s in the British colonial period, the port of Rangoon (as it was called at the time) was second only to New York City in terms of shipping traffic. This made sense given the strategic location of the port (between Europe, India, and Asia) and the massive quantities of natural resources that were being extracted from the Burmese by the British. The waterfront today is a mere shadow of its former self, but as one strolls through the streets of Yangon, one sees an incredible array of colonial buildings that hint at the former grandeur of the city. Most of these buildings are in a sad state of disrepair, with trees and plants growing out of any flat surfaces. One of the few colonial buildings that is in good shape today is the Strand Hotel, situated directly on the waterfront. Standing in the lobby one can almost sense the various personages of great importance who transited through this port 100 years ago. Replacing the steamship horns and bustle of the port today are a few cars, some food vendors, and a handful of pedestrians.
Innovation Lesson – The faded glory of the port of Rangoon reminds me of the daily challenge our companies face as intense competition blossoms all around us in the marketplace. No matter how successful we are with a product or service, we must know that there is always a competitor lurking in the wings, ready to disrupt our offerings with little advance warning. Our job as innovators is not just to think about developing new products and services to maintain our lead in the marketplace, but also to think about what our competitors may be doing and provide insights for our leadership concerning areas where we might be vulnerable. An innovator should be like a person in 1920s Rangoon walking along the waterfront thinking about the evolution of global commerce, rather than simply marveling at the hustle and bustle of steamships loading and unloading their cargo in the roaring economy of that period. Innovators should always possess a healthy dose of skepticism about their company’s successes as well as a bit of paranoia about directions from which the competition might try to attack in the future.
Another aspect of Yangon’s colonial heritage of interest to the modern innovator is the concept of value applied to such structures. As one walks along the streets of Yangon, the crumbling facades of once-magnificent colonial buildings are interspersed with modern structures. It is difficult to fault the leaders of Myanmar for wanting to shed their ties to their colonial past by replacing some of these older buildings with modern structures. After all, modernity by definition consists of replacing what is old with what is new. A typical resident of Yangon would probably see these old buildings as falling apart and inferior to the sleek, modern structures built recently in the city. Yet what this perspective fails to see is that these old structures possess an intrinsic value that require a more creative approach to appreciate. These colonial-era structures are some of the most interesting and unique in the world, and other countries have spent a great deal of time tearing them down. Myanmar, because of its isolation for so many decades, has an unparalleled opportunity to make those amazing structures part of its future and cement its position as having an unmatched combination of old and new in its largest city. With the proper investment in historical preservation of structures, no other city in Asia would be able to rival Yangon in its colonial architecture. Georgetown/Penang, Malaysia supposedly has an excellent array of colonial buildings and I traveled through that city on my way to Myanmar. Georgetown cannot hold a candle to Yangon from the standpoint of colonial architecture. They are light years apart.
The role of the innovator in this case is to be the person who can identify this intrinsic value where others are only seeing a high costs or bad feelings about the colonial era. This notion is reminiscent of the concept of dormant ties, as espoused by the University of Michigan’s Wayne Baker in his “two-step method” of asking for help in a corporate or academic environment. Baker observes that when one is unable to solve a problem [as is often the case for an innovator working on a new problem], he or she “might not know whom to ask [directly] for help, but [he or she] can ask someone who then knows the correct person to ask.” This is the two-step method, which enables a person to find a resource outside of one’s inner circle. According to Baker, one of his colleagues specializing in innovation at the University of Michigan, Jeff DeGraff, used the two-step method 180 times over the course of a year to find experts to assist his innovation work.
Baker notes that there is also an unintended benefit from leveraging this method, as it can sometimes lead one to rejuvenate a “dormant tie.” A dormant tie is an old acquaintance with whom one has not communicated for a long period of time. Rather than expressing displeasure at the belated contact, Baker has found that this person usually is delighted to be contacted and that dormant tie often has proceeded in a different direction than the original point of contact, this person will have access to a network of resources that the original person would never be able to find on his or her own. This is like the colonial architecture in Yangon in that it is a dormant tie to a past that can be leveraged by those in the present to create something of value.
The Yangon Motorbike Ban – Unintended Consequences
Any frequent traveler to cities in East and Southeast Asia quickly becomes accustomed to the rumble of motorbikes, also known as scooters or mopeds, that provide citizens of these crowded cities with a quick, cheap, and effective means of transportation. In places where public transit options are limited or over-crowded, the motorbike is a viable alternative for literally millions of people. This can make it difficult for pedestrians to cross busy streets as what almost appears to be a constant stream of motorbikes flows by with few breaks. Indeed, one of the skills that a frequent traveler to this region learns is how to cross a street safely amidst this river of two-wheelers and cars with a lack of crosswalks (eye contact, a hand up, bravery, and constant motion are effective means of crossing streets).
Yet there are some cities in Asia where the roar of motorbikes is strangely silent. In some cities in China, the government banned gasoline-powered scooters and mandated the use of battery-powered scooters, which fixes some of the pollution and noise issues but makes it harder as a pedestrian to hear when one is approaching. In Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon, I was surprised to find that the typical constant rumble of motorbikes does not exist either. In 2003, the government banned motorbikes and that ban remains in effect to this day. Strangely, no one knows for certain why this is the case. There are various theories abound as to why this ban went into effect, ranging from a concern about road safety due to riders not obeying traffic laws, to a threatening gesture made against a military general by a single rider or gang of motorbike riders, and to a general’s daughter who died in a motorbike accident.
This ban was not as big of a concern when few residents of Yangon were wealthy enough to own automobiles, but as the economy improved after sanctions ended in 2010, more and more residents had enough money to purchase cars and traffic became even more snarled in the former capital city. Compared to other clogged-up cities in the region, Yangon’s jams are not the stuff of legend, but they are definitely worse than they would to be if residents could avail themselves of two-wheeled motorized transportation to wind their way around the city through traffic. It was indeed a strange feeling to be in such a large city in Asia and not see a single motorbike.
Innovation Lesson – As innovators we usually focus intensely on the direct outcome of our efforts. In other words, we devote so much time and energy thinking about a new product or service we are developing or the change to a process we are designing that it is easy to neglect to think about unintended consequences of our actions. As such, it is possible that the benefits derived from our innovation may be weighed down by negative, unintended results. It is important, therefore, that the innovator place a step in his or her process where one devotes time to thinking about impacts from the innovation that could detract from a successful outcome. The motorbike ban might have addressed some initial concerns on the part of the government, but the net effect in the long term is much greater traffic congestion in the city.
As mentioned in a recent Intelligence Squared podcast, the new book Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers by Mervyn King, John Kay, and Jesse Norman explores the concept of radical uncertainty and relates it to innovation. King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, Kay, a renowned economist, and Norman, a Member of the British Parliament, review the topic of uncertainty in the fields of history, mathematics, economics and philosophy. The authors note that innovation often emanates from unintended consequences, citing the economist John Maynard Keynes who theorized that uncertainty can often be a source for innovative thinking. In this area, it is helpful for the innovator to differentiate between uncertainty and risk. Uncertainty means a lack of definitive thinking about an outcome and can be either good or bad. Risk, conversely, denotes a lack of definitive thinking about an outcome that is specifically bad.
To uncover uncertainty, one simple tool advocated by King from his experiences at the Bank of England involves asking very simple questions, as these are often neglected by professionals because they fear being viewed as uninformed by their colleagues. I have seen this firsthand as an innovation practitioner where one’s title often creates the impression among colleagues or customers that the innovator knows everything about every topic. While many innovators can be viewed as very intelligent individuals, sometimes their expertise lies in asking the simple questions that people who are focused on details may have missed. When an innovator takes a break from focusing on the intended outcome of a project and thinks about alternative possibilities, this can serve as a form of simple thinking that can both identify unexpected risks as well as unearth new innovations that one had not even considered.
An example of this comes from the story of the Hubble Space Telescope, as relayed in a recent BBC Witness History podcast. The telescope itself was the fulfillment of a dream of astronomers around the world to be able to see the universe without having the distortion of the Earth’s atmosphere interfering with the images (this is why large telescopes are situated on the tops of mountains at high elevation). Brilliant scientists and engineers designed the enormous Hubble space telescope and launched it via the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Although the crew deployed the Hubble successfully in orbit, the first images sent back to Earth revealed that the eight-foot diameter reflective mirror had been manufactured incorrectly by a tiny amount (less than the size of a human hair of deviation). Unfortunately, this error, meant that the telescope could not focus properly and was thus not workable.
After a few years NASA came up with a solution and installed the equivalent of a corrective lens that enabled the telescope to work, resulting in the wondrous images we see today from this incredible piece of equipment. Astronauts were able to install the corrective lens because the designers of the Hubble assumed that they would want to switch out scientific equipment within the telescope in the future, so they built it in a modular fashion. This attribute enabled the shuttle mission to fix the telescope by swapping out components. Although they probably never envisioned using the modular features of the telescope to repair a mirror issue (after all, if they thought the mirror was wrong they would have fixed it before it left Earth), it turned out that their engineering of flexibility in the design to accommodate unintended future uses ended up saving the entire program. This is the kind of creative thinking that colleagues and customers expect to see from those of us in the innovation field.
Drive on the Other Side – Think about Foundations
Another unexpected aspect of transportation in Myanmar is the curious fact that the country’s cars drive on the right-hand side of the road (like in the United States) but most of their vehicles have the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the car, as would be the case in the United Kingdom. When motor vehicles first started plying the roads of Myanmar, the country was a British colony (Burma) so naturally the first set of road rules dictated that cars drive on the left-hand side of the road with the steering wheel apparatus on the right-hand side of the car. Although the British left Myanmar shortly after World War II, the country continued to drive according to the old colonial model until 1970. On December 6th of that year, the country of Myanmar executed an overnight switch to driving on the right-hand side of the road, and supposedly the changeover went off without a hitch. No one knows exactly why Myanmar made this change. One theory asserts that General Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer told the General to make the change, and since the people of Myanmar hold astrology in high esteem, it is possible that this rumor is true. Another theory suggests that the idea of driving on the right-hand side came to General Ne Win in a dream. It is also possible that the Myanmar rulers wanted to further distance themselves from the British colonial heritage.
Innovation Lesson – At first glance this change would not seem to hold much of import for the innovator. Other than the challenge of the immediate changeover (in terms of how to execute it overnight and switch the direction of road signs and arrows), this seems to be an action that any country could execute. Indeed, Sweden changed over from the left to the right side of the road in 1967. Their change required years of preparations and resulted in a brief but “monumental” traffic jam at the time of the changeover (though their volume of traffic in 1967 was certainly greater than that of Myanmar in 1970). The bigger issue with the changeover in Myanmar is something that continues to this day – the prevalence of right-hand drive cars. After the sanctions regime was loosened in 2010, newer cars started to appear. The country also removed import restrictions and its citizens earned more income (allowing them to buy more new cars), a huge number of cars in Myanmar are still right-hand drive. Indeed, all of the cars I rode in while in the country had the steering wheel on the right. This made it quite interesting when our drivers engaged in the ubiquitous developing country activity of passing slow-moving vehicles on two-lane roads. The driver had no way to see around a large truck or bus in front of us without poking most of our car out into the lane of oncoming traffic. This made for some interesting encounters, but clearly the drivers had long grown accustomed to this sub-optimal setup.
The lesson for innovators in this situation is to always analyze whether the foundational infrastructure is in place to support a new idea. No matter how creative or innovative a new approach might be, if the core components needed to enable this change are not in place, then the likelihood of success is much less. In the case of Sweden, the number of cars with right-hand drive eventually lessened as left-hand drive cars replaced them. According to government statistics, the number of traffic accidents was lower immediately after the changeover but gradually reverted to previous levels as cautious drivers facing the new regulations slowly gained more confidence and resumed their old habits. In the case of Myanmar, the continued prevalence of right-hand drive cars likely results in more accidents. When thinking about a new project, an innovator should make a mental note to ask whether his or her change has the necessary infrastructure in place, or if that infrastructure can be replaced on a relatively quick pace in order to ensure that the benefits of the change are properly realized.
Mingun and the Hsinbyume Pagoda – Buy-In and The Definition of Utility
One of the most popular excursions taken by visitors to Mandalay City is a 30-minute trip by boat on the Ayeyarwady River to the ancient city of Mingun. The boats depart from the riverfront area outside of Mandalay City where it becomes very apparent how important the river is to the people of the city, as one passes thousands of people interacting with the river in terms of boating, transporting goods, fishing, washing clothes, and bathing. The poverty in the village leading up to the riverfront and along its banks is staggering but is typical of Myanmar, where one repeatedly sees stunning contrasts between the beautiful and the tragic. Our longboat was quite large and lived on by a small family. As we traveled alongside other unnecessarily large boats with tourists all heading upriver to the same destination, I lamented the inefficiency of the situation but also realized that by traveling in separate boats we enabled many families and guides to earn a living that day. The larger boats also gave the families a place to sleep, as the structures on land near the river were definitely not places where one would want to reside.
Approaching the riverbank at Mingun one can see the massive, unfinished Mingun Pagoda rise in the distance as if it were a mountain in an of itself rather than a man-made edifice. King Bodawpaya began construction of the pagoda in 1790 and intended for it to be the largest in the world, with a goal of reaching 500 feet in height. Its current base is 450 feet wide and 450 feet deep, but its highest point is only 172 feet. Had the project reached completion, it would have been similar in size to the Giza pyramids in Egypt. During construction, King Bodawpaya heard a prophecy that if the pagoda was completed then he or his kingdom would cease to exist, so he deliberately slowed construction so that he would not see its completion. It is also said that locals also were very unhappy with the project, which slowed its progress. When the King died, work ended on the stupa and a massive earthquake in 1839 cracked the structure. Today, visitors can be awed by the size of the unfinished pagoda but cannot climb steps to the top as the pagoda is too unstable.
Next to the pagoda is another structure that has become known as the wave temple. The Hsinbyume Pagoda has become even better known that its massive neighbor. The structure was built in 1816 by Prince Bagydaw to show his love for his deceased wife Queen Hsinbyume (which means “White Elephant Queen”), who died during childbirth in 1812. The temple is designed to resemble Mount Meru, which Buddhists view as the center of the world. The pagoda has seven concentric terraces to align with the seven mountains surrounding Mount Meru, and waves in the temple’s structure represent the world’s oceans. The Hsinbyume Pagoda is a stunning white structure in excellent condition which stands in sharp contrast to the reddish-brown, cracked and crumbling Mingun Pagoda.
Innovation Lesson – For the innovator, the massive Mingun Pagoda serves as a reminder of the importance of buy-in for a project. Locals were particularly unhappy with the King’s vision to create such a massive structure, and since their slave labor was required to complete the project, it was probably doomed from the start. No matter how far-reaching one’s vision might be, if the innovator does not bring others along towards his or her goal, the outcome may be in peril. In the case of the Hsinbyume Pagoda, a different lesson is worth exploring. Hysinbyume may be even more famous today than the Mingun Pagoda even though it is smaller, newer, and probably less significant architecturally than its neighbor. Hsinbyume is a site that Instagram users flock to visit because it provides for so many unique photographic opportunities. While there we saw few people seeming to appreciate the historical attributes of the site or the story of the White Elephant Queen. Rather, there seemed to be a never-ending search for the perfect Instagram photograph among the seven tiers of the pagoda, despite signs admonishing visitors to treat the pagoda with the respect it deserved as a religious site. While I will admit the structure is beautiful and striking, it did remind me that one had to always think about the utility people derive from a project and recognize that the utility one assumes will be created via the original design may end up being something completely different once the project is complete. It would thus be worthwhile for the innovator to spend some time in the midst of a project thinking about how users might find alternative value from a new idea.
Bagan – The Land of 2,000 Temples
Although the Shwedagon Pagoda is the most visited tourist attraction in Myanmar, the image that tourists typically associate with Myanmar is the temple-studded landscape of the ancient city of Bagan. Located in the central plains of Myanmar alongside the Ayeyarwady River, Bagan is known as the city of 2,000 temples. This, however, is not entirely accurate, as there are nearly 2,230 temples in the area out of over 4,450 temples (originally built here by a series of kings from the year 1057 to 1287 A.D.). The Bagan Archaeological zone is a 26 square mile relatively flat landscape with stunning contrasts between deep green foliage, rust-brown soil, reddish-colored stone temples in every direction, and hazy gray mountains in the distance. When one visits Morocco, many tourists enjoy a drive along the “road of a thousand casbahs (castles).” While this Moroccan road does indeed consist of many castles, the metric of one thousand castles seems a bit dubious. In Bagan, on the other hand, the temples are everywhere and one quickly realizes that the city of 2,000 temples is indeed a correct appellation. Travel writers note that this area rivals Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat in terms of its archaeological significance. Having been to both of those sites, I would definitely agree, but would proffer that Bagan has three interesting characteristics that render it even more amazing. Examining these three attributes: perspective, rebuilds, and interiors, can provide lessons for the modern innovator.
Innovation Lessons –The most iconic picture of Bagan that one sees on Instagram accounts around the world is an early-morning shot of innumerable of red temples, green landscaping, and dozens of colorful balloons gently floating overhead. Indeed, ballooning over the Bagan Archaeological Zone can be the highlight of any trip to the area, but some of the most amazing photographs each morning are taken by tourists on the ground who have a different vantage point and watch the balloons rise from empty fields and traverse the morning sky. This view could be said to be even more breathtaking than the perspective one might be afforded from riding several hundred feet up in the sky. For the innovator, the fact that the view from the ground rivals the view from the sky serves as a reminder not to assume that the more intricate and complex solution is always the better one. Sometimes the simplest approach yields the best results.
Another aspect of the experience at Bagan involves the odd appearance of some of the temples with mis-matched bricks and other construction materials. Once Myanmar opened more widely to tourism, the government and locals saw the unique value of the Bagan site and decided that the “more is better” approach should prevail in the Archaeological Zone. Rather than follow the painstakingly slow efforts that typify archaeological digs (think tiny brushes and progress measured in inches of soil removed per month), they decided to rebuild as many of the temples as possible using whatever materials they were able to find nearby, without giving much thought to whether various building materials actually belonged to certain temples.
While this only happened with smaller and less important temples, it nonetheless violated a key tenet of archaeology and caused great consternation on the part of historians and archaeologists around the world who prefer to minimize their impact on ancient sites wherever possible. Having visited the site and seen some of the incorrectly reconstructed temples, I understand the concerns of the experts but also understand that other motivations were driving the locals and government officials to reconstruct as much of their history as possible. The net effect of being able to turn one’s head 360 degrees and see dozens and dozens of temples in every direction is an experience that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Without some of the reconstructions, this effect would be diminished. The reconstructions also give the modern visitor a better ability to experience what it might have been like to walk through the site at its peak when the temples were newly built.
There is a concept in archaeology known as the “archaeological gaze” that differentiates between what archaeologists study versus what social scientists study. According to Michael Brian Shiffer of the University of Arizona, “social scientists focus on social interaction: people talking to each other, deploying their cultural beliefs, attitudes, and values in relation to their socioeconomic class, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, neighborhood, and so forth.” Archaeologists, conversely, “envision groups at all social scales consisting of activities of every kind in which people and material culture interact continuously.” Archaeologists focus on the artifacts of material culture, “such as makeup, clothing, cooking utensils, tools, furniture, and structures,” which are “as necessary for activity performance as the people themselves.” This makes sense, as archaeologists must often reconstruct a great deal about past civilizations based on a small amount of material goods recovered from a site. One could argue that the more the modern visitor can physically experience the life of an ancient civilization, the better one can make mental connections between past and present.
This physical connectivity is an attribute at which the temples at Bagan excel, and not just in terms of the reconstructions which add to the quantity of temples at the site. Another unique aspect of these temples is the amazing interior structures and artwork (frescoes) that have survived nearly intact throughout the centuries. Although Myanmar is in Southeast Asia, which we think of as a climate of intense rain and monsoons, the Bagan region is relatively dry. Miraculously, with all of the conflict in the area over the centuries, especially during World War II with the invasion by Japan and subsequent attacks by the Allies to remove the Japanese forces (which leveled many cities, including Mandalay), many of the greatest temples in the region survived intact (though some were damaged by an earthquake in 1975 and restored).
The Ananda Temple is perhaps the best-known temple in Bagan and contains exquisite exterior stonework and amazingly intricate interior artwork. This and other large temples in the area strike me as more impressive than Angkor Wat (which has deteriorated due to the jungle-like conditions of Siem Reap, Cambodia – quite a different climate than Bagan), as well as the unfortunately melting sandstone of Petra, Jordan. All of these sites are amazing in their own right, but for some reason the Bagan temples gave me the best experience of what it might have been like to live at those sites in the era of the kings at the time of their original construction. The experience of being inside these amazing structures and seeing the Myanmar people worship the Buddha as they have done for centuries is absolutely incredible.
For the modern innovator, this is precisely the reason why it is so important to immerse oneself in the area in which one is working on a particular problem. This is something I have encountered on numerous occasions in my career as an innovator. While spreadsheets and process flow diagram are useful tools in innovation work, nothing can replace the experience of physically walking through a plant to observe a manufacturing process. My time spent on plant floors, even when we were only able to visit a site briefly, resulted in much greater insights than could be obtained by endless hours of dialog in non-descript conference rooms outside the plant. This is not to say that one can simply observe a process and identify improvements. Rather, it means that in addition to deep and thoughtful research on how to solve a problem, it never hurts to immerse oneself deeply in that problem to gain a greater understanding of how potential innovations might result in improvements.
Reflecting back on my trip to Myanmar many months later, I find myself even more intrigued by this country. Although one runs out of words to describe Myanmar, one that kept coming up in conversations was “surprise.” I was so pleasantly surprised at the experience that it rendered the overall trip even more impactful. This reminds me of a recent BBC Inside Science podcast interview with the Astrophysicist Chris Lintott, founder of the Zooniverse crowd-sharing science application. Lintott is one of the founders and original innovators behind the concept of crowd-sharing science, in which scientists use distributed computer-based applications to farm out specific analytical workloads to large numbers of humans across the globe. Zooniverse has been active in the field of science for over a decade and has leveraged the talents of over two million people, leading to over 160 peer-reviewed publications. Lintott is a strong advocate for the power of humans to match that of computers, and he notes that despite the increasing power and sophistication of Artificial Intelligence (AI), there continues to be some things that humans can do better than machines. “Modern machine learning,” he states, “is getting very good at pattern recognition, but humans have one key advantage which is that we can be surprised.” Lintott concludes that if the goal of a project is to identify the unusual or the unexpected, then engaging human volunteers beats the computers on project after project.
This characteristic – the ability to be surprised – is something that the innovator should strive to maintain throughout his or her career. Yet rather than just maintaining the ability to be surprised, an innovator should tailor his or her work in a way that puts himself or herself in the position to be surprised. In other words, it’s not enough just to be surprised – one has to work to find the kinds of anomalies or unexpected situations that lead to surprise findings. My trip to Myanmar was done at what I would consider a “gut-feel” level. I had not planned to go based on dozens of reasons that suggested I should go elsewhere (difficulty of arranging travel, potential for intestinal illness, a desire not to support the military government) but in the end I made a gut-feel decision that this was something I needed to do. The result was a set of discoveries that I could not have found anywhere else on the planet.
This reminds me of what some refer to as the oldest story ever written – the Epic of Gilgamesh. Believed to have been originally composed in 1800 BC, this epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia tells the story of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, and includes scenes such as a great flood that covered the Earth. In the second book of the Epic, Gilgamesh is saddened by the death of his friend Enkidu and begins a long and dangerous journey in search of the secret of eternal life, which he presumes to be able to find in the form of a magic plant. Unfortunately, Gilgamesh is never able to find this plant, though in the course of his perambulations he lives to the ripe old age of 124 years. According to the Epic, Gilgamesh is told by the gods that “[l]ife, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.” Professor Vybarr Cregan-Reid of the University of Kent, in a recent study of longevity, observes that modern science has confirmed that the secret to a longer life is actually revealed in the Epic, although unbeknownst to Gilgamesh. Researchers have found that two of the most important characteristics shared by the longest-living humans are being physically active and having a purpose. Cregan-Reid notes that Gilgamesh met these two criteria with his long walks in search of the magic plant and his devotion to a cause or purpose in seeking out the plant, and lived to 124 years of age as a result. “The ancient King never realizes,” Cregan-Reid observes, “that the search itself, and its movements and purpose – those are the things that leverage those extra years of good life.” Like King Gilgamesh, an innovator should always have a purpose and not be afraid to keep moving.
BBC News, Myanmar Profile, (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883)
HBR IdeaCast episode 714, “The Art of Asking For (And Getting) Help,” December 17, 2019, (https://overcast.fm/+DiP1p5s/)
Intelligence Squared podcast, “Radical Uncertainty, with Mervyn King, John Kay and Jesse Norman,” (https://pca.st/zj84z0pd)
BBC Witness History podcast, “The launch of the Hubble Space Telescope: How NASA put an orbiting observatory into space in 1990,” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csyx15)
Michael Brian Schiffer, Archaeology’s Footprints in the Modern World (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2017), p. 208.
BBC Inside Science podcast, “Ten years of Zooniverse; what happened to volcano Anak Krakatau and visualising maths,” December 19, 2019, (https://overcast.fm/+IPNiH1n-4)
BBC World Service podcast The Compass – “What is the secret to a longer life?” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct064t)
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