Learning to Appreciate Diversity: A Key to Creativity in Our Times

There’s an article in the current issue of The Economist which says that an increasing amount of ‘output’, at least as measured by patents, in recent decades is due to recombination of past knowledge, rather than original discovery. As I have generally observed, such knowledge recombinations require straddling multiple domains. It’s rather like Lego blocks when you think about it, a ‘block’ of knowledge from one field, combined with one from another, and so on.

So the question is, how can one build a sensitivity to and appreciation for diverse sources of knowledge, especially in a world where most of us are super-specialized in some field?

Here’s one brief answer: Most of us do not naturally crave diversity. Rather, we gravitate towards those who are largely similar to us. There’s even a word for this – homophily – a well-documented result in the social sciences, literally meaning ‘love of the same’. It follows that to build sensitivity to and appreciation for diverse sources of knowledge, we have to actively seek out diversity.

I think there are many ways to do this. I’ll share my own experience. At Harvard, I have the privilege of overseeing our University-wide South Asia Institute, which, by design and constitution, spans all of Harvard’s faculties (think pure sciences, law, languages, classics, and the list is wonderfully long). Our activities now engage some 200 professors and hard-to-count-how-many students, who come together episodically in what is ultimately a weekly festival of ideas.

Here’s an example of a week where I had an opportunity to participate in a few of these events.

Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s leading human rights activist, made clear in a spirited discussion in early March of this year how life goes on while her troubled country lurches, as her talk was titled, from “Crisis to Crisis.” Civil society holds it all together as the formal trappings of the state remain dysfunctional. These soft bonds are represented in the tea houses on the streets, in the lawyers’ and journalists’ unions, and in spontaneously erupting art and music, all of which ensure that there is no vacuum, so that Pakistan is spared the dismal fate of post-Taliban Afghanistan or post-Mubarak Egypt. Without this strong fabric, daily life would have been a lot worse. (As a personal example, I’m so proud of my student in Lahore, Imran Sarwar, creator of Rabtt, an organization that works with school-age kids after school and on weekends, in what I think of as carefully designed activities delivering a ‘creativity tonic’ to the kids.)

It’s hard to see how someone running an organization in Pakistan would not benefit from understanding the existence of this society-within-a-society.

Jahangir was followed at our Institute that same week by Omar Ishrak, the CEO of Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical devices firms. Ishrak addressed the challenges and opportunities of increasing access to affordable healthcare to the 90% of South Asia’s residents who lack it currently. Though ostensibly completely different from Asma Jahangir’s focus on human rights, there are many points of connectivity. Access to basic health is a human right of course. Practically too, delivering the care that Ishrak spoke about requires coordinating among many actors in society, which brings us to the civil society that Jahangir spoke about.

There were several other talks that week, to continue to illustrate the smorgasbord of ideas coursing through the Institute’s ‘veins.’ Some colleagues shared insights on disaster relief, and the Indian actor Rahul Bose talked to the undergraduates about his acting career and his work as a social activist. The Institute also advertised the launch of the Murty Classical library, a truly pioneering effort to bring India’s classics within the reach of the world’s readers, in a way that equals the access that the world’s educated have to Greek and Latin works today.

I find that getting exposure to people from walks of life so disparate from my own is enormously stimulating to my own endeavors, academic and practical. While no sure-fire bet, it raises the odds of stumbling onto useful creative combinations. And amongst other things, they all help in developing what I’ve called elsewhere Contextual Intelligence.

Before I close this post, I am tempted to connect it back to the previous one on the relative importance of hiring on the basis of attitude or aptitude to foster creativity. There I had suggested that creativity is largely, and increasingly, a team sport. Here’s one more reason why.

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