Skip to content
An official website of the OECD. Find out more

Diversity in innovation: Towards inclusive innovation?

The tale of the ‘erasable pen’

Say you have a doctor, an engineer, and a lawyer all sitting in a room. These three professionals work for the same firm and head office told them that company may now only operate with either pens or pencils. They have to make the decision.

Their conversation goes like this:

Engineer: I vote for more pencils because with pencils I can erase my mistakes if I make an error in my calculations.

Lawyer: I vote for more pens. Pens are the only thing that I can sign off with in order to make my documents legal.

Director: As long as I can write with something – pens or pencils, who cares?

What an odd dilemma, right? It seems like such a simple question, yet the answer for getting rid of either is difficult. Three different people need to debate with one another, make an effort to understand the problem and come up with a solution that is both effective and inclusive of all their needs.

So, after they spend a long day in their boardroom, they come up with an innovative solution: the erasable pen!

This hypothetical scenario demonstrates the value of diverse perspectives in decision-making and innovation. If the same scenario was presented only to lawyers, or only to engineers, the decision would have been different and innovation wouldn’t have happened. The lawyers would have chosen the pen and the engineers the pencil, each group ignorant of the other’s needs. Yet, intermingling was the impetus for innovation and the result worked well for everyone.

The bigger point?

Individuals have their own unique needs, values, preferences and beliefs. When it comes to devising solutions to problems or, more to our point here at OPSI, devising innovative solutions to problems, debating distinct viewpoints is essential to the process.

Understanding diversity in innovation

If public sector innovation is really about creating the best ideas for maximum impact, to what extent does the process of innovation draw on diverse people of various backgrounds who can either contribute to the innovation, benefit from it or both? How do we ensure innovations are actually useful and beneficial to the different needs or citizens and organisations and not just the people who have historically shown up to devise solution (the few people who get to be deemed innovators)?

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post ‘Diversity in innovation: Does it matter?‘, I believe that one of the biggest problems that public sector innovation faces today is that governments have de facto created a ‘class of innovators’, rather than making innovation an inclusive process that is open to anyone who has the motivation and capacity to influence change.

I know through my own personal experience that innovation in the public sector was far from diverse. Actually, the whole field of innovation itself seemed to be overrun by ‘innovators’ who were either self-proclaimed or appointed. Getting one project to work well through either luck or sheer will was enough to grant recognition as being an innovator. Sometimes, the process rewarded very particular characteristics that were implicitly deemed, rather than truly interrogated as, ‘innovative’. But, isn’t innovation something that can happen at any time, or with anyone? Shouldn’t innovation actually be more inclusive and diverse, if we really want to access a variety of novel ideas?

This is the case I want to explore. My questions are:

  • How innovation could benefit from diversity in the public service?
  • How diversity could drive innovation
  • How an inclusive work force could promote and support innovation.

The relationship between diversity, inclusion and innovation is an emergent area of research and practice, both in the private and public sectors. they require our further attention.

Defining diversity

Diversity according to the OECD can be viewed through three different lenses. Diversity can be viewed as a resource and/ or a way to:

  • Enhance equal opportunities
  • Increase the inclusiveness of underrepresented populations

While diversity is often synonymous with the differences in representation, diversity should actually be understood through the combination of different elements of internal (i.e. age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) and external differences (i.e. personal and professional experiences, educational background, religion, socio-economic background, etc.) that a person has and how those differences overlap to shape a person’s reality, past experiences, and future opportunities.

Therefore, for public sector innovation, the diversity of people, should not only be viewed as a means to increase social value, whereby public organisations view diversity only as a means to represent good practices and overt representation, but should be viewed as a resource for driving meaningful change with people who know the society and its problem the best.

Diversity and inclusion

As valuable as a conversation about diversity is for innovation, the conversation cannot take place without an equal emphasis on inclusion. Most organisational strategies today have understood that the true value of diversity can only occur when a workplace is open and appreciative of new ideas. In the context of public sector innovation, the concept of inclusion is especially important, since it is the empowerment and encouragement of inclusive environments and inclusive leaders that allow individuals to push for creativity and offer meaningful ideas.

Therefore, while diversity is about identifying the differences between people, inclusivity is about appreciating those differences and creating an environment where individuals can openly reflect and create from their diverse backgrounds to pursue change and innovate.

I know that there is still so much to learn about the relationship between diversity and innovation, but I think it’s time we start creating a new narrative for innovation, where the focus is not only on the technical output of the process, but also to understand the people that drive it and why. My research so far has shown that despite some efforts that organisations have made towards increasing diversity and heightening inclusivity, there is still so much more that can be achieved.

But how?

So, along with changing how we address the process of innovation, we also need to revisit how diversity has been represented within public institutions. Instead of governments trying to target groups for increased representation, organisations should view diversity as a resource for creativity.

Think back to my ‘erasable pen’ story and the solution the characters devised. If the three professionals were not forced to sit in a room together and debate whether they were going to get rid of their pens or pencils, do you think the new invention of the erasable pen would have come about? Probably not. Their difference in experiences showed that sometimes option ‘a’ or  ‘b’ were not the only options, and the breakdown of different perspectives lead to the invention of a whole new product. Diversity gives rise to the kind of creativity that drives innovation.

Often, governments are pressured to develop simple policies that can be implemented quickly, lest they be accused of inaction, but this sometimes means that decisions are not always made with the widest set of viewpoints that would maximise the impact of the policy.

Diversity in public sector innovation should also be viewed as method to connect people to policies and to make policies relevant for citizens. The way people experience life and how they understand societal problems is important for defining and designing solutions and involving people in this process encourages them to become agents of their own change.

Finally, linking diversity and public sector innovation is about realising how innovation is different from conventional policy development. Every single person is diverse and every single person has a unique perspective on how the world operates. Innovation that draws on diverse viewpoints and can function as an outlet for individuals to gain autonomy and experiment with ideas that would otherwise go overlooked in a conventional bureaucratic setting. Therefore, linking diversity to innovation is not only about looking at how it can advance policies and create better impact for governments, it is also about giving people, public servants and citizens alike, the self-efficacy, power, and freedom to direct change in the way they see necessary.

Diversity and inclusivity in innovation: A gender example

A common example has been towards the inclusion of women as a form of diversity in innovation. In addition, gender diversity can also be a driver of innovation, by taking away the gender bias, using methods of gender-disaggregated data and ensuring gender expertise. A virtuous circle can therefore be created: as more women integrate the places of innovation, innovation becomes itself gender-sensitive. Moreover, by representing different women, innovation can advance one step further by acknowledging intersectionality and one policy can affect various populations differently. An interesting example of that is how women researchers can reinvent the way we measure data outside of the gender policies per se, but in a gender-sensitive way.

For example, Ines Sanchez de Maderiaga’s work with UN Habitat led to the invention of a gender-sensitive measure for energy in developing countries: the measure on the access to washing machines. Washing clothes consume a lot of energy, and it is traditionally a women’s task. Therefore, measuring the access to washing machines is a way to gather a gender-sensitive data on energy and also to understand any barriers that could preclude women from access or using washing machines.

Toward inclusive innovation

I suggest the way forward for a kind of public sector innovation that is sensitised to the issues I have outlined, is to move toward ‘inclusive innovation’. By this term, I mean public sector innovation processes, practices and people which look to enhance creativity, inclusiveness, and efficacy.

 There are some caveats to this. As much as diversity in innovation can be viewed as a valuable subject for increasing productivity and creativity, if not managed properly then miscommunication, intergroup conflict, and difficulties in social integration can easily hamper it. Diversity in innovation and inclusive innovation requires thoughtful management.

What is your ‘erasable pen’ story?

Certainly, more is needed to understand how diversity in innovation and inclusivity brings value for public sector innovation. You can shape our research in two ways:

  1. Connect with us by sending an email to [email protected] if you want to learn more about this project and become involved. I want to know more of the ways diversity adds to innovation and what practices have been used to create inclusive atmospheres conducive for innovation. I am interested in expanding my circle of interview subjects.
  2. Submit a case study on how your organisation has dealt with issues of diversity in innovation. Our Call for Innovations is open and we want to receive case studies on diversity initiatives or uses of diversity to drive public sector innovation.

Remember, there’s a lot of different stories to tell, ways to write those stories and tools with which to write them. If decision makers are only doctors or engineers, then the solution will only be pencils or pens for calculations or contracts.