July 12th, 2010

Diversity: Unleashing Innovation


I once heard that the blades of modern wind turbines are modeled after the fins of humpback whales.  I’m not sure its true, but there is a striking resemblance, and such a practice has a name in design and engineering: biomimicry.

There is a less specific, more systemic feature of natural systems that I am interested in: the role of diversity.  It seems that diversity has a protective effect on some of the most critical natural systems, which directly or indirectly impact social well-being and human health; for example, its role in natural carbon sequestration, water purification, curing disease, and – oh yeah – evolution.

The protective effect of diversity occurs elsewhere, too.  In finance, diversity is a strategy for managing non-systemic risk; anyone that had all of their financial portfolio tied up in Enron stock knows this well.  And all those arguments about energy independence? In effect, those are arguments for energy diversity; a mix of generation sources – and the “smart grid” to manage them – could potentially avoid price shocks, supply shortages, and blackouts.

So diversity is a good thing for nature, design, finance and energy – so what? Well, as a self-proclaimed innovation economist, I’m always looking for the traits and characteristics of nurturing innovative projects, teams, solutions, ventures and geographic “clusters” (See Chris’ new survey to elect your city), and research I conducted while in b-school led me to believe that diversity is a key component for driving innovation.  The hypothesis that I  didn’t, but would like to, research further: the passive investments in nurturing diversity to drive innovation are just as important as hard spending on R&D.

Of course, diversity isn’t just cultural – it can derive from the cross-pollination of and collaboration between public-private partnerships, intra-industry ventures, and institutional “mash-ups.”  The latter is the focus of projects like Upstate Venture Connect, a project seeking to accelerate the linkage between academia, private and institutional capital, and workforce and industrial capacity in upstate New York.

It’s my belief that the diversity in the U.S. is a prime factor for our nation’s innovation leadership.  Arizona S.B. 1070 notwithstanding, a long tradition of favorable immigration policies have led to what Tom Friedman calls “the world’s biggest and most diverse pool of high-I.Q. risk-takers.”  In my view, the U.S. is still uniquely positioned for “innovation incubation,” an important consideration for those who believe we can innovate our way out of global meltdown (pun not intended, but appropriate I suppose).

Humpback photo credit: Nancy Black.

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Matt Marino

About Matt Marino

Matt C. Marino is a LEED Green Associate and 2010 graduate of the Boston College Carroll School of Management MBA program, where he studied energy and technology markets. Upon graduation, Matt started work as a Market and Policy Analyst at First Wind in Boston. He is also the founder of Clean Pursuits (@cleanpursuits) a “for-benefit” venture committed to developing cleantech applications for communities in need; and the co-founder of Switchback Life (@SwitchbackLife), a healthy snacks company. When not working, Matt can be found making lists and training for ultra-distance endurance competitions, often with his Brittany (spaniel), Cooper.

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams


    I love the post and can't agree more, a diversity of perspectives is the most important things.

    I just listened to an awesome discussion where the speaker said that because the world is changing so fast, if the purpose of the firm in the 20th century was to minimize transaction costs, its purpose in the 21st century is to learn as fast as possible.