Nature v Norm – How language drives innovation culture
There are moments when you connect unexpected dots and some new level of understanding clicks. Last week I was enjoying the park at Vaux-le-Vicomte designed by 17th century master of gardens ‘à la française’ André Le Nôtre, who went on to design gardens at Versailles and many other places throughout France and Europe. Le Nôtre’s vision of nature is one that is domesticated, made to fit a pattern, where seasons and distance are mastered, the latter through the use of perspective tricks, the former through the use of evergreen plants. Today, listening to a Modern Language professor at the University of Southampton, I picked this insight that a good behaviour referred to as ‘natural’ in English will be called ‘normal’ in French, a language subtlety that underpins deeper differences in the English and French ways of thinking.
That remark shed new light for me on the French culture that Le Nôtre’s vision embodies, a culture where change is programmatic, where innovation tends to be centrally controlled. Hence, a country that deployed electronic terminals (Minitel) in every households two decades before the boom of personal computers, but missed the internet business revolution; a country that designed and deployed on a grand-scale highspeed trains (TGV) and the infrastructure to support them, but missed the low-cost air travel shift; a country that has one of the most efficient power generation and distribution infrastructure, but struggles with the decentralisation on which some renewable technologies thrive in other countries.
Le Nôtre’s nature is indeed normalised and often designed to be viewed from a particular standpoint. Harmony is sought after in a top-down way through the design and application of norms. By contrast, the English landscape garden tends to exploit the diversity of terrain and the serendipity of nature in order to create surprises that you can not see from any central viewpoint, but that you have to stumble upon as you walk through the park. The English garden, like the historical liberalism that arose about at the same time, seeks harmony through grassroot initiatives and embraces the resulting diversity.