Acton Institute Powerblog

Creativity vs. innovation for the Christian entrepreneur (and beyond)

As human persons made in the image of a creative God, we are uniquely fashioned to produce and create, contribute and collaborate, give and receive, trade and exchange. Such a reality has a wide range of implications for our economic activity and institutions, whether in our daily work and mundane interactions or the pioneering of new products, services, and enterprises.

Economists and policymakers have long had their eyes on such matters, of course—constantly observing and analyzing the role of creativity and innovation in fostering economic growth, stability, and dynamism, particularly when it comes to entrepreneurship.

As Christians, knowing what we know about the ultimate origins and ends of each, what might our perspective bring to the more typical assessments and arguments?

In their paper, “Creativity, innovation, and the historicity of entrepreneurship,” Jordan Ballor and Victor Claar ask a question that serves as a valuable starting point: What are the distinctions between “creativity” and “innovation” in our understanding of entrepreneurship?

“Creativity can be understood as what human beings do in connection with the fundamental given-ness, or ontology, of things,” they argue. “From some religious perspectives, for example, creativity is a human virtue or faculty that is made possible by the metaphysically prior reality of divine creation and the structure of the human person in connection with that reality. Innovation, on the other hand, can be best understood as a phenomenon related to the historical progress of humankind. Innovation is what human beings discover on the basis of what has already been discovered.”

The paper isn’t focused on the Christian contribution to such matters, but in acknowledging the deeper metaphysical questions, it opens doors to unexplored areas that merit reflection among economists and theologians alike—not to mention everyday workers, consumers, and entrepreneurs. (This recent work is a continuation of a previous paper that walked in this same direction.)

When it comes to how we view entrepreneurs (their key focus), the distinctions manifest accordingly. “Entrepreneurs can be seen as those who discover something radically new and hidden in the latent possibilities of reality and creation,” the authors write. “Or entrepreneurs can be seen as those who develop new, and even epochal, discoveries primarily on the basis of the insights and discoveries of those who have come before them in history.”

To further unpack the angle on creativity, Ballor and Claar review a range of influential thinkers and historical developments that have affirmed the distinction, pointing our attentions to that “fundamental given-ness of things,” whether in the physical or metaphysical realm. From Adam Smith to John Paul II and beyond, we see a longstanding belief that human creativity is “rooted in a distant and ultimately mysterious realm of possibility,” offering “a source of liberation against constraints or bounds that have been put in place by customs, traditions and the particularities of human history.”

As for innovation, they walk us through a similar survey, noting the continued importance of “extending what is possible by utilizing what already exists in a new way.” Pointing to several examples (e.g. FedEx’s borrowed hub-and-spoke model), they remind us that many of the world’s greatest triumphs in entrepreneurship have sprung from simply building on or re-applying pre-existing discoveries to meet new needs in new ways.

Although each is closely connected—i.e. creativity leads to innovation—economic observers and actors of varying dispositions have often emphasized one area over the other. For example, while economist Joseph Schumpeter focused much of his work around the entrepreneur as a “creative genius” of sorts (a vision of “New Men”), economist Israel Kirzner focused more so on the entrepreneur as an everyday innovator. “The Kirznerian entrepreneur does not have to be a captain of industry or even a small-business owner,” they explain. “The Kirznerian entrepreneur is someone who is merely scanning the market horizon to look for opportunities to do something as simple as ‘buy low and sell high.’”

Yet while our attentions may tend toward different directions, Ballor and Claar encourage us to be more mindful of the distinctions of each and all that they imply. In doing so, we can better clarify our imaginations and our corresponding efforts:

While there is a valid distinction between creativity and innovation, this distinction need not, and indeed ought not, lead to a radical division. There are elements of both creativity and innovation in every truly entrepreneurial endeavor, and indeed both the reality of objective creation and the development of human history are necessary conditions for human activity in the present. Thus, models of creative entrepreneurship and innovative entrepreneurship are fundamentally compatible.

There is, however, at least theoretical value in being able to distinguish between these two aspects or perspectives. They can function, as they do with Schumpeter and arguably with Kirzner, as ideal types that are helpful for making conceptual distinctions that can have practical consequences. Without making such distinctions, there is a risk of missing or ignoring some crucial or necessary condition for entrepreneurial activity. A holistic and comprehensive understanding of entrepreneurship embraces both its creative and innovative aspects, its metaphysical grounding as well as its historicity.

The paper concludes by teasing out how this might shape future studies and policymaking. Are we seeking to promote or incentivize creativity, or are we more focused on innovation? Are we elevating the New Men of industry or recognizing the contributions of everyday innovators?

Yet at a closer cultural level, I’d recommend that we also return to my initial question: As Christians engaged in routine economic activity, what might these clarified distinctions imply for our own imaginations and stewardship?

For example, by reflecting on our roles as distinctly creative persons, we might find a greater understanding of (and connection with) that “higher reality” from which our activity flows. If we are, indeed, “created to create,” what are the “latent possibilities” waiting to be uncovered and discovered in the world around us? Throughout that journey, how are we reconciling or relating with the limits we encounter in that bigger divine story? Though thinkers like Schumpeter may have imagined “creative entrepreneurship” as being confined to a smaller set of dreamers and risk-taking titans, aren’t we all called to create from and collaborate with nature itself?

Likewise, by reflecting on our roles as distinctly innovative persons, we might make better sense of our roles in the larger economy—something far too often misconstrued as a mere “machine.” With a greater understanding of how innovation works—through mundane, hum-drum discovery across generations and entire economic ages—we begin to see our human role in a very human story, bringing all the “divine” implications along the way. When we understand our role as innovators, we more clearly see our day-to-day economic risks and decisions—not in the context of an impersonal materialistic machine, but as part of a great and mysterious collaboration.

These questions lead to greater questions, of course. But with a clearer mindset and vocabulary, the answers will come all the easier. This study sets us off on a course that’s sure to be fruitful.

Image: wir_sind_klein (Pixabay License)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.