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Powering Innovation Through Diversity

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

IBM Watson Research Labs
Yorktown Heights, New York

Monday, October 30, 2006

When one steps into an IBM facility, one senses, immediately, that this is a corporation whose core mission is what I like to call, "the new news," — or innovation. The production of the IBM "Global Innovation Outlook" series, now in its second cycle, is only the most public example of IBM's focus on innovation. As a proponent of both the creation of, and the value of, innovation, IBM is, of course, among the global leaders.

The term "innovation" is a focus, also, of many current reports covering our nation's economic competitiveness, our national security, as well as the state of our public education and higher education systems. The word hangs on every tongue — in business, in education, in government, in society.

The National Governors Association has selected "Innovation America" as its focal point for next year, under the leadership of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Her focus will be to increase student proficiency in mathematics and science, and to enhance innovation through statewide strategies to reduce barriers to innovation, to support entrepreneurship, to fund research and development, and to create 21st century university systems.

My purpose today is to extend a premise: If we truly value innovation, then it follows that as a society, as a corporation, as any institution, and as individuals, we must wholeheartedly embrace diversity. And, if we want to cultivate and to nurture innovation in our nation, in our states, in our communities, in our universities, and in our corporations, then, we must cultivate and nurture diversity, as well.

I thought it might be interesting to pose some underlying questions about diversity to ponder as we begin to explore this topic:

  1. In what ways is diversity a meaningful term?
  2. What elements constitute true diversity?
  3. How far are we willing to go with the concept of "diversity?" To diversity of thought? Diversity of politics? Diversity of background? Diversity of income? Is there diversity of fact? What do these imply? What might be their manifestations?
  4. What does diversity mean in a global context — especially for multinational organizations?
  5. Does diversity lose its meaning if applied too broadly?
  6. What is the place of diversity in a free society? What role does it play?

Let us look, for a moment, at what happens when diversities converge. I have taken examples from a very different arena — that of artistic expression.

Last year, in New York City, the PaceWildenstein Art Gallery opened an exhibit called "African Zion: the Sacred Art of Ethiopia." The show featured artworks covering eight centuries of Africa's oldest Christian culture — a dazzling display of blazingly colored icons and glinting metal crosses.

The art is the intriguing consequence of an amalgam of cultures and influences. It is a legacy of aesthetic excellence which was bequeathed to the world by the serendipitous confluence of peoples and cultures. Those influences include:

  • Semitic peoples who crossed the Red Sea from the Saudi Arabian peninsula into Africa,
  • Christianity, brought from Europe by Jesuit missionaries,
  • Islamic culture, law, and religious practice,
  • Sub-Saharan African traditions and customs,
  • And, even itinerant Italian artists.

The centuries of converging, blending, melding diversity in east Africa spawned a distinctive, brilliant art, with a cultural depth, breadth, and warmth which make it both unique and very welcome. Ethiopian art, it seems, is little studied, because it requires scholars who are conversant in European, Islamic, and African art — which The New York Times termed "a tall, multicultural order" — not to mention the spiritual and religious aspects of the art works.

Let me offer another example. This, too, derives from confluence of societies upon a continent. It, too, is taken from the realm of art.

Currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an exhibit titled, "Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492 to 1820." The time period, alone, tells us something of the turbulent historical epoch and the cultural collision after the "discovery" of the Americas. The art of this period results from the clash of Iberian and pre-Columbian civilizations, the convergence of old Europe and the New World — not unlike the clashing of tectonic plates. The art works reflect the convergence of people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, languages, religions, histories, ideas — Spanish, Portuguese, Inca, Mayan, African, and Asian.

The result is a remarkably rich, varied, extravagant artistic production, as one culture adapts to and, also, transforms another — creating what is new.

Ethiopian or Latin American art are just two examples of many throughout human history. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, scientists, engineers easily might identify other instances, throughout the world and over millennia, of converging cultures, peoples, disciplines, which brought on discoveries, advances, innovations, to the extraordinary benefit of humankind.

It was interesting to me, however, to learn from an exhibit curator that the impact of diversity is something of a new subject, which has been overlooked in the field of art.

Allow me to suggest a third example. Two years ago, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute opened its newest education and research facility — the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. The Center exemplifies the contemporary research paradigm. No offices for individual departments or disciplines reside in the building. Instead, it provides research and office space for approximately 400 faculty, staff, and students — both graduate and undergraduate. The facility houses researchers in biotechnology, in information technology, in microsystems, in nanotechnologies. Most importantly, the architects specifically designed the building with spaces which enhance serendipity — the chance encounter or spontaneous conversation between and among researchers from which may spring multidisciplinary collaboration — enhancing discovery, enhancing innovation.

Putting life science researchers together with those who do research in information technology, microsystems, and nanotechnology makes excellent sense. Research and technology indicators suggest that biotechnology and information technology, coupled with the convergence of microsystems and nanotechnologies, are closely aligned with global and societal priorities, and are primary drivers of economic growth. Biotechnology, for instance, already is transforming health care and agriculture, and opening up possibilities for sustainable resource management. Information technology is the driving force in every industry today, transforming many of them and enabling new areas of research, such as genomics, proteomics, and glycomics, and new areas of enterprise, such as services science. Together they are challenging and transforming the world's underlying social, economic, and political structures.

The juxtapositions begin to make my point — which is: you never know where the next best ideas will come from. And, to keep those breakthrough ideas flowing — to create an environment which is conducive to breakthrough ideas, one must not exclude anything from the great mix — from the great diversity — because one of those ideas or those elements may, indeed, be the piece which sparks the next great innovation.

Indeed, the American Experience, itself, is a good example. For hundreds of years, people, groups, individuals, have arrived on this continent from all over the world — though some were not always willing participants. They brought the widest variety of languages, cultures, ethnicities, thought, concepts, ways of doing things, values, opinions, and perceptions. This experience, or experiment as it is often called, gave us what we have today.

  • The most sophisticated higher educational system in the world;
  • A well-developed, supportive infrastructure for enterprise;
  • A financial system providing ready access to capital, and a long tradition of investment in entrepreneurial projects;
  • Government structures designed to support and to invest in a variety of enterprises, and government policies which encourage investment and entrepreneurship;
  • A history and tradition of collaboration between the public and the private sector;
  • A thriving, diverse culture of risk takers; and
  • A long history of taking great risks for great rewards.

The American Experience is, indeed, a culture tailor-made for innovation, where ideas are welcomed and viewpoints sought.

Because I lead a technological research university, I frequently address the topics of innovation and discovery, and my point is that diversity is a kind of energy — a power which generates the new, the unique, the innovative, the excellent. Diversity advances innovation to meet global challenges. Innovation is advanced by chance, by challenge, by choices, and by informed coincidence. It is nourished — it is powered — by the full breadth of diversity, and, overall, by the quest for excellence. Diversity is an energy which powers this quest.

But, in order to have innovation, one must have human talent — people — well-grounded in basic fundamentals, globally astute, exposed to a broad diversity, and curious, motivated, enthusiastic.

A variety of reports, released in the past four or five years by government, industry, and higher education, raise concerns for our economic wellbeing and continued global preeminence — given the rise of other nations. China, as an example, overtook the U.S. two years ago to become the leading exporter of information technology products. Last year, only four American companies ranked among the top 10 recipients of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Finland, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Sweden each spend more on research and development as a share of GDP than does the United States.

These concerns, in turn, have focused corporate efforts on the acquisition of talent. Earlier this month "The Economist Magazine" published a 15-page special section on "The Search for Talent: Why It's Getting Harder to Find." The most recent issue of "Wilson Quarterly" did the same, in a feature titled, "The Global Race for Knowledge: Is America Losing?" However, here I must insert a cautionary note. The talent competition is not a zero sum game. The "Wilson Quarterly" introductory commentary asks us to consider, ". . . how exactly we are impoverished if our neighbor gains in knowledge." In other words, it can and should be only positive for an interactive global economy — and for collaborative scientific endeavor — that nations are developing their economies and investing in their own human talent.

But, it does raise some questions which we are well to address.

Three demographic shifts are changing the U.S. labor force — the growing retirement of today's cohort of professionals, especially scientists and engineers; a diminishing flow of talent from abroad (as other nations invest in their own higher education institutions, and develop their own business enterprises); and the increase in the size of American minority populations.

Our shifting national demographics are creating what I term the "new majority" — comprising women and ethnic minority groups who, traditionally, have been underrepresented in higher education, and, especially, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At 57 percent of the undergraduate population, women now surpass men in colleges and universities, and in professional studies such as law and medicine.

With ethnic minority groups projected to account for the largest increases in the population in coming decades, and the growing under-representation of men in our colleges and universities, our paramount mission will be to educate all students — which includes women and ethnic minority groups — through high school, into and through the university to graduation, and on to doctoral or professional study. For every 100 ninth grade students, only 67 graduate from high school. Of those 67, only 38 enter college, and only 18 earn a bachelor's degree. In 2005, in both mathematics and science, less than two-fifths of U.S. 4th and 8th grade students performed at or above a proficient level. U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 39 countries that participated in a 2003 examination, which assessed students' ability to apply mathematical concepts to real-world problems.

While the college educated labor force more than doubled between 1980 and 2000 — increasing by 107 percent, without increases in the overall rate of educational attainment, especially by underrepresented populations, the college-educated labor force will likely grow by less than one third over the next 20 years. This will bring a slowdown in the skilled U.S. labor force, just as other nations are investing in the advanced education of their own populations.

Changes to visa policies, after 9/11, and the fact that more international students are able to find advanced education and employment in their home countries and in other nations around the world, have diminished the flow of talent to the U.S. from other nations.

I have called these converging trends "The Quiet Crisis" because they threaten our global leadership, and our economic and national security.

It is "quiet" because these are creeping trends — the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time, and is easy to ignore or overlook. But, because it takes decades to educate and fully prepare a professional scientist or engineer, we must continually prepare the next generations of STEM professionals, and invest in programs which nurture and develop them along the complete educational and career pipeline.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries, inventions, and innovations create whole new industries to keep our economy thriving, and help to mitigate the global scourges which make for human suffering and global instability. Without innovations we fail — as a nation and as a world.

The impact of the "Quiet Crisis" is vividly observable in the growing need for energy security.

Energy security reaches beyond our own nation, as this planet's 6.5 billion people are pressuring the world's energy supplies. By the year 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people, and their energy needs will grow with their developing economies. But today, 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. Energy security, indeed, may be the 21st century's greatest global challenge. The stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless.

I could speak at length on the issue of energy security, but that is for another time. However, I make two points:

  1. Major innovative advances, and the development and exploitation of new technologies require human talent, of necessity, drawn from the complete talent pool — including from our "new majority."
  2. Energy security is a global issue. As such, it is a cross-cultural and geopolitical issue. We need diverse professionals of all types to derive energy solutions for a diverse world; to create global solutions in a local context.

I have been calling for a national conversation on the Quiet Crisis to address our nation's capacity for innovation. In an open letter to President Bush in advance of his January 2006 State of the Union address, I made the point that, just as President Kennedy galvanized the nation in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, so, too, should we galvanize as a nation around energy security. Indeed, energy security is the space race of the 21st Century.

It is a race against time, just as it was then. We are in the midst of global competition and global geopolitics, just as we were then.

The conversation on a U.S. national innovation agenda is engaged.

The President unveiled his "American Competitiveness Initiative," during his January State of the Union address. The 10-year, $136 billion plan combines increased federal science and education spending with tax breaks for research and easier visa access for highly skilled international workers. The President's Plan would extend and expand tax credits for research and development costs. The initiative was received positively. However, some of its elements have become tangled in more controversial issues such as the estate tax and conflicting immigration proposals, not to mention electoral politics.

The House, now, has passed two 2007 spending bills which include an additional $439 million for the National Science Foundation, and an additional $505 million for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. Two days before the October recess, the Senate introduced the National Competitiveness Investment Act. This bill is a combination of several previous legislative efforts, which may have the opportunity to pass the Senate before the end of the year. Let us hope so, and work for its passage.


The bottom line, then, is that in a global innovation ecosystem, diversity is a cardinal value. Corporations, in large part, do not need convincing. Many multi-national companies have developed policies to assure the hiring of people whose gender, race, and intellectual diversity reflect the communities they serve.

These policies are driven by the precept that there is value in diversity — that bringing divergent points-of-view to the table broadens the perspectives of corporate leadership, creating a clear-eyed view of the world and of the competitive marketplace. Simply put, corporations are embracing diversity because it is essential to maintain their market share, their competitive edge, and their long-term survival.

Similarly, a nation's economic health requires that it acknowledge the value of diversity and suffuse that value throughout its institutions and interrelationships. If one accepts the premise that innovation is key to global competitiveness, economic strength, and security, one must understand the essential link of leadership to innovation, and of innovation to the creation and sustenance of a talented multicultural workforce — especially a science and engineering workforce. It is imperative that the talent and intellectual prowess which exist among people of all colors, religions, and creeds, be welcomed and encouraged.

Innovation requires smart, focused people — drawn from the complete talent pool — challenging each other and understanding each other, to create something really new. And, true excellence requires drawing the best from all of us, through intellectual, gender, ethnic, and geographic diversity.

The questions which I posed at the outset have few ready or easy answers. But, they challenge our thinking about diversity, and so I thought I would leave them with you.

  1. In what ways is diversity a meaningful term?
  2. What elements constitute true diversity?
  3. How far are we willing to go with the concept of "diversity?" To diversity of thought? Diversity of politics? Diversity of background? Diversity of income? Is there diversity of fact? What do these imply? What might be their manifestations?
  4. What does diversity mean in a global context, especially for multinational organizations?
  5. Does diversity lose its meaning if applied too broadly?
  6. What is the place of diversity in a free society? What role does it play?

Diversity, and discussions of it, can be turbulent, and uncomfortable. The questions I pose are important. Their answers will shape our future. They can be clarifying and illuminating, leading to a deeper understanding of one's self and one's world. What do they mean for a corporation like IMB? AT&T-Bell Labs programs were driven by a consent decree. Is that what it takes? Remember — diversity advances innovation — diversity powers excellence.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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