The problem at hand
Let us state it in the clearest way possible – innovation has a diversity problem. Not because diversity and innovation would be at odds with each other, quite the contrary. Innovation thrives on diversity, to the point where we might say that diversity is one of its most important driving forces. But this simple fact, proven time and time again, still struggles to change the macho madness logic, vernacular, and attitudes in both innovation literature and innovation initiatives in organisations.
This is something I see time and time again in my work. I join innovation workshops, only to find that young Caucasian men lead them, even in countries where these represent a minority. I meet Chief Innovation Officers, and unsurprisingly they look like the older (male) relatives of the men in the preceding sentence. I join panels on innovation, only to find that they consist solely of people who look very much like I do.
And yes, I can see the irony in bringing this up as a white, Caucasian man -who is by now solidly middle-class (although not too far removed from my rural and working-class roots). I may be an innovation professor, but I have to admit that I look the part. Which is part of the problem.
In the boys’ club
As Emily Chang notes in her excellent, if troubling, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, and Ross Baird analyzes in his The Innovation Blind Spot: Why We Back the Wrong Ideas – and What to Do About It, the current state of innovation is beset by a deep-rooted notion that innovation is something best done by bright Caucasian and Asian boys from the best engineering programmes in the US. They receive the lion’s share of the venture capital funding, and most of the media time to boot. This support then leads to at least some successes, which can be held up as proof that the system works and that all is well.
However, not all is well. Even though we may enjoy the spoils of this privileged system of innovation – the electric scooters, the meal-delivery services – the shallowness of this is starting to become ever more apparent. We have a system where a privileged subset of humanity solves their own problems, whilst there are so many more out there to be dealt with.
The age of wicked problems
One of the results of our very skewed innovation system, a system that invests disproportionately at solving problems for relatively affluent and often male urbanites, is that many of our most pressing problems have become marginalized. Whilst innovation, and the tremendous amount of resources devoted to it, surely could solve problems for the elderly, for single mothers, or for the dispossessed, today this is not happening in nearly the extent that it should.
Ecological matters might get lip service from the contemporary innovation industry; many other matters are routinely overlooked. Notions such as ethics of care and compassion, or battling inequality, or addressing the still persistent biases in who gets to become and be seen as an “innovator”, these are given short shrift. The innovation industry is busy competing over who can send me a pizza the fastest, while food insecurity is rising even in some of the richest countries on the planet.
Innovation through deep diversity
What innovation thus needs, to fulfil the promise that it still holds, is a diversity revolution. The system that Baird and Chang document, one that has been admired by policy-makers the world over, has failed to deliver on this promise. It is a system that has predominantly given resources to young men from the right schools, to solve their problems or even non-problems. We need to be able to discuss this and to critique the contemporary systems of innovation. We need innovation critique, and a focus on diversity is a critical part of this.
Innovation thrives on a diversity of perspectives. Research has consistently shown that ideas generated by diverse groups show both quantitative and qualitative improvements when compared with the output of less diverse groups. What we now need is for these benefits to be extended along the power structures of innovation. Yes, we need diverse teams, but we also need far more e.g. women of colour as Chief Innovation Officers. We need to make sure that innovation resources also go to people battling inequality, ageism, and ableism.
More than anything, we need to see that innovation can be made better. We have never had more resources for it, nor better technology with which to realize it. What we now need to tap into is the rich cognitive surplus that deep diversity offers.
What is to be done about
The first step in this is to make sure that the kind of innovation critique that I’ve tried to outline here isn’t just the fodder of columns and commentaries. We need innovation policies that address biases, and that makes a concentrated effort to capitalize upon the potential that diversity still has to bring to the innovation discussion.
This is not to say that we do not need the young, Caucasian men that I meet at various innovation events. Of course, we do. Nor does it mean that I will stop engaging with innovation, as a no longer quite so young Caucasian male. Still, we are only a part of the big picture, and the world needs to see this.
So we need to highlight what kind of innovations actually come out of the current macho madness in the innovation industry, and to show how many real problems remain untouched by the force that was supposed to disrupt and transform the world. A more diverse approach to innovation is set to extend the scope of innovation engagements enormously, creating vast amounts of value – both socially and economically, for the benefit of all.
About the Alf
Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and a leading keynote speaker. His new book Innovation for the Fatigued is out now. Visit alfrehn.com to find out more.