Diversity Powers Innovation, Economy

According to the mathematics of innovation, one plus one often equals three. Economic research on the creative power of groups demonstrates that teams composed of smart people alone may not generate innovative solutions to technical problems. According to Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan, diversity within those groups leads to a diversity of problem-solving approaches and drives the power to innovate. Today’s Science Times features an interview with Page, who is an advisory board member for Science Progress, on his recent book on diversity, The Difference.

Each individual in a group brings his or her own problem solving perspectives, termed heuristics, to their work. One group of well-educated individuals from similar backgrounds, each with a similar set of heuristics, may posses fewer total problem solving perspectives than another more diverse group where individuals bring heuristics from different backgrounds and life experiences. As Page explained in a column for the Center for American Progress, the more diverse group has more problem-solving tools at its disposal, and therefore more power to design solutions. Moreover, those diverse perspectives can be super-adative. “What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems,” he explains in today’s interview, “The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.”

Page argued in an October Science Progress column that investing in research alone will not unleash the full capabilities of the U.S. science and technology workforce. Rather, he suggested, the government can encourage more effective innovation through interdisciplinary research programs; with support for scholars from underrepresented groups; by funding more high-risk research projects, even if some of them fail; and by financing multiple solutions to big problems. As he told the NYT, “Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.”