The Frontal Cortex

The Benefits of Diversity

The Times has an interesting interview with Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan:

Q. In your book you posit that organizations made up of different types of people are more productive than homogenous ones. Why do you say that?

A. Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

Page goes on to cite New York City as an example of the benefits of diversity: “It’s an exciting place that produces lots of innovation and creativity. It’s not a coincidence that New York has so much energy and also so much diversity.”

Of course, the real challenge of diversity is getting people who think differently to interact. A pluralism of opinions is only useful if people find ways to share their opinions with each other. That, at least, is the moral of some new urban science which I wrote about last year in Seed (“The Living City”):

While certain institutions can foster innovation, the scientists are quick to point out that the innovative abilities of cities are ultimately rooted in the one thing that every city has in common: lots of human interaction. “Cities concentrate our social interactions,” Bettencourt says, “and that’s what leads to this explosion in knowledge creation and innovation.”

Perhaps significantly, the metropolises of the future – fast growing desert communities like Phoenix and Las Vegas – don’t generate this kind of human friction. They work by minimizing our dealings with other people. These rapidly growing cities are really collections of suburbs, in which density gives way to single-family homes and air-conditioned garages. The sidewalks are empty; the commuters commute alone.

But unless these new cities find ways to make their citizens interact – to create public spaces that people want to share – they might not generate the conditions that allow them to continue their rapid growth. The equations imply that a city without concentrated human contact is destined to stall and wither, since it won’t be able to innovate at the necessary rate. Urban growth without urban density is unsustainable.

This is a mathematical demonstration of an old idea. Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), argued that every healthy city was defined by its ability to facilitate social interaction. She saw the busy sidewalk as an improvisational “ballet,” in which information freely flowed between city dwellers. Her book identified the specific urban ingredients⎯from short city blocks to mixed-use neighborhoods⎯that encouraged “the intricate mingling of diversity.” When strangers were forced to communicate, Jacobs wrote, the city developed the “innate ability…to invent what is required to combat its difficulties.” Interaction and innovation were intertwined.

The sad truth of diversity, though, is that it might actually discourage interaction. Or so says Robert Putnam:

A massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.


  1. #1 Leisureguy
    January 8, 2008

    I noticed in my own organizational experience (in industry) that one effect of diversity in the workplace is indeed a variety of ways of viewing a problem or situation. The difficulty is that each person finds some of the views expressed are simply wrong (from his/her point of view). It’s a kind of culture shock, and if diversity is sought, one thing to emphasize is training in negotiation and listening skills so that when two people find that each finds the other’s view as totally wrong they are able to talk about the differences and find ways to resolve that different views. Otherwise, the effect of diversity is lots and lots of workplace friction.

  2. #3 Andrea Grant
    January 9, 2008

    Is this urban density factor partially what spurred the Age of Reason/enlightenment?

    I haven’t read the Putnam piece, but does he go on to discuss that the most diverse neighborhoods are (in my experience) also the poorest and otherwise disenfranchised (both for the vote and everything else) by being poor, immigrant, etc. Guess I better go read it.

  3. #4 Roy Christopher
    January 9, 2008

    Diversity certainly breeds better ideas and all complex systems have their requisite variety. The key, as you and Putnam both state, is getting a diversity to cross-pollinate. Even the web — be-all, end-all melting pot of memes that we all wish it to be — is diverse only at the macro scale. It’s more of an echo chamber for like-minded groups than a great mixed-breeder.

    I tried to mix it up a bit on my now-defunct site, where we claimed that by “allowing theorists, artists, BMXers, musicians, skateboarders, etc. to rub shoulders, attempts to cross-pollinate areas of interest so that new ideas can grow.” I’m not sure how well we did, but that was the idea.

  4. #5 Randy Blackford
    January 30, 2008

    This is helpful to those of us in the academic arena who are challenged to demonstrate the benefits of diverse student bodies and faculties.

    I don’t know if you know about Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr pages, but he is quite generous in sharing pictures from his travels and encounters. This is one from the “notes from Scott Page�s talk at the SFI Overview on Complex Adaptive Systems.”

    Putnam’s work is challenging, realistic, but hopeful.

    By the way, I’ve searched and searched for your article in Seed on “the Living City” but could not find it. Any help?