Diversity is the driving force behind many a phenomenon affecting the development and survival of mankind. It is also the most effective means of solving difficult and complex problems. This is the first of two articles in which we will describe the importance of diversity, its different manifestations as well as processes that produce diversity and make use of diversity in problem solving.
Diversity is the driving force of evolution and cultural development
Evolution is based on probing the functionality of different solutions in their environment; man has evolved by producing different solutions to new and ever-changing challenges in our natural habitat. These solutions have benefited the spread of our genes. If we at any point in time would have become all like each other, we would not have survived.
Also for plants, diversity is a prerequisite for survival in different challenging circumstances. 170 years ago, Irish farmers cultivated only one breed of potatoes, which was exposed to potato blight. They lost the whole crop and millions of people starved to death. With two different potato breeds (increasing genetic variability) we would have much more Irish people on earth.
Today we unfortunately have a very limited perception of which regional and larger catastrophes the change and disappearance of species due to global warming may lead to. Fast warming does not offer species an opportunity to adapt by evolution.
Beside the genetic development that supports biodiversity, also cultural diversity supports alternative lifestyles and variety in the way we use nature. Western culture has been successful in adopting the useful achievements of other cultures – from China gunpowder and paper, from Arabic countries numbers and the basics of mathematics, astronomy and chemistry. Hopefully we will also in the future be able to avoid building walls between different cultures.
In business life, differentiation has proven to be a winning competitive strategy when compared to competition in superiority. The same goes for warfare. The success of General Rommel, the Desert Fox, was not based on superiority in battle, but on the fabulously unexpectable choices he made.
The numer of innovations per capita produced in a city grows with about 15 % when the population in the city doubles.
The success of urbanization and its impact on global development is largely due to the cities’ superlinear capacity to produce innovations. The number of innovations per capita produced in a city grows with about 15 % when the population in the city doubles. This is based on the possibility to make collide people thinking in different ways. These collisions will grow exponentially in number with the potential number of “colliders” . The diversity of human thinking in combination with urban dynamics has probably been the most important driver of innovations during the last one hundred years.
Cognitive diversity creates differentiation in problem solving
Diversity permeates in all aspects of our lives as a vitalizing force. It is especially fascinating in the form of cognitive diversity, or the different perspectives of different human beings and their different ways of processing data. We solve problems and predict in very different ways. Forecasting and problem solving are basically the reverse of the same issue. I will in the following text concentrate on problem solving.
Think about the number sequence 5 12 17 24. How does it continue? Finding out a solution may seem difficult, but changing the perspective helps. The number sequence turns out to be the same as 5 10 15 20, but presented in the octal system so that the base figure is 8 instead of 10. In the octal system the number sequence thus continues 31 36 etc. The octal system was used by Yuki people in present California up to the 20th century. The reason was simple, they counted interstitials between fingers instead of counting fingers. On two hands there are altogether eight interstitials. A different perspective.
Changing perspective is an effective way of solving a difficult and complex problem. The easiest way of getting a new perspective is to listen to different people that are looking at the same problem.
Often the best experts in different sectors as well as corporate management teams have a similar education, background and experience. They have the same kind of tools for solving a problem and therefore also the same perspective to the challenge. By bringing along people with a different background, we also get different perspectives. The cleverest of us can change their perspective if needed and then bring new points of view to the substance matter.
During his travels, Charles Darwin collected empirical data, a basis for the evolution theory, but he was initially not able to create a theory suitable for the data collected. He believed that biological organisms produce offspring just enough for keeping the population stable, but he was not able to make the equation work based on this hypothesis. By accident he then once for the sake of passage of time read an article by demographer and economist Thomas Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. In that article he saw a different way of relating to population development. Darwin expanded Malthus’s thinking from human society to all biology. Species breed faster than the environmental resources would allow, after which only the strongest and fittest survive. In this way evolution got a theory and one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind was ready. Darwin only needed a change of perspective.
Already in 1789, Antoine Lavousier arranged the chemical elements known at that time in one system based on their properties. During the years to follow, many chemistry scholars brought new aspects to the entity, but only Dimitry Mendeleyev in 1869 got the idea to arrange the elements in several alternative orders and relations to each other with a card game he had invented. He was also wise enough to leave spaces in the system for elements not yet discovered. Any school pupil interested in modern chemistry quickly understands the point and admires the simple logic behind a complex system. He or she just needs to understand the perspective Mendeleyev chose for his card game.
It can be mathematically proven that if there exists a solution to the problem, the solution will emerge by bringing enough different perspectives to the analysis.
Albert Einstein has said that if he had only one hour to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution. A well-chosen perspective will almost automatically direct us to the right solution. It can even be mathematically proven that if there exists a solution to the problem, the solution will emerge by bringing enough different perspectives to the analysis. There is huge power in diversity.
Diversity can be the key to understand serendipity
I have for years been contemplating the mystery of serendipity, the mystery of happy accidents or positive coincidences. Why do most of the important scientific achievements in world history under closer scrutiny prove to be half coincidental and how do such coincidences occur? There is a vast number of examples: the thermoelectric effect, electrical magnetism, radioactivity, X-ray, Bose-Einstein statistics, the wave-particle duality, high temperature superconductors. Especially medicine is full of these phenomena, the most well-known being penicillin, Viagra, Retin-A, contraceptive pills, melatonin hormone, Interferon, catheterization of coronary disease, L-dopa as a cure to Parkinson’s disease, calming benzodiazepines, laughing gas and LSD.
Companies are often too modest to disclose that chance plays a major role in their big innovations.
Many of the most successful innovations in corporate life belong to the same long list of coincidences: the inkjet printer, microwave oven, Post-it stickers, pacemaker, Teflon, several sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, cyclamate), vulcanization of rubber on car tires, cellophane, Rayon, super glue, champagne, potato chips, ice cream cones or even Kone’s machine-room-less elevator. Companies are often just too modest to disclose that chance plays a major role in their big innovations.
Earlier I believed that Louis Pasteur’s famous statement “Chance favors the prepared mind” would be an sufficient explanation: A scientist, who understands his or her research field well enough, will also be able to identify a surprising new possibility and exploit that possibility. This explanation probably correlates with the origin of all innovations listed above, but it does still not explain the mechanism of creating something new. We need a new perspective to the subject matter, an explanation based on the strength of using different perspectives in the scrutiny of a new and unexpected situation.
The exploration of the importance of diversity in solving difficult and complex problems has raised changing different perspectives as a strong candidate for an explanation to the mechanism behind serendipity. A scientist can combine a surprising and different fact with her or his previous knowledge and has enough wit and vision to understand the importance of a newly unfolded new opportunity. We just need to explain how to change perspectives and how the right solution unfolds.
In a second article I will revert to that process, which takes place seven centimeters inside our frontal bone – conducted by our anterior cingulate.
The essential inspiration to this first article in a series of two has been Professor Scott E. Page at Michigan University. He holds the Leonid Hurwicz chair in complexity science, political science and economics. Scott has written several excellent articles and books on diversity and complexity. I can especially recommend four of them:
- Scott E. Page The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2017
- Scott E. Page Diversity and Complexity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2010
- Scott E. Page The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2007
- Lu Hong, Scott Page Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101 (46), s. 16385–89 2004
Othes sources referred to
- James F. Gillooly, James H. Brown, Geoffrey B. West, Van M. Savage, Eric L. Charnov Effects of Size and Temperature on Metabolic Rate Science 2001 Sep 21;293(5538):2248-51
- Luís M. A. Bettencourt, José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert and Geoffrey B. West Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States 104(17):7301-6. 2007
- Geoffrey B. West Scale: the universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organisms, cities, economies, and companies. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Press. 2017
 Also salary level, the number of cultural events, the number of top experts and the number of restaurants per capita grow proportionally in the same way. Unfortunately crime, diseases and AIDS cases per capita also grow over-proportionally when population grows. See Luís M. A. Bettencourt et al. 2007 and Geoffrey B. West 2017