Resolving the paradox of diversity: How can we reap the benefits of diversity without paying the costs of co-ordination?

Resolving the paradox of diversity remains one of the great challenges of our time.
- Dr Michael Muthukrishna
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A new ‘cultural evolvability’ framework aims to unlock the potential for innovation through a more nuanced understanding of diversity.

Diversity is an important issue high on the agenda for both corporations and governments in an interconnected and multicultural world.

In a collaboration between the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the University of Lausanne and McGill University, a new paper aims to understand the complex relationship between cultural diversity and innovation.

Throughout history, societies have evolved through diversity of opinions and approaches. Differences in beliefs, behaviours, assumptions, values and other transmissible traits such as language, technical skills and occupation have been important drivers of innovation. 

Diversity within populations evolves as information and labour are divided, with people becoming specialised in different areas. While this diversity allows for more knowledge and new ideas, without common goals and proper co-ordination and communication, the flow of ideas becomes obstructed, and innovation can be reduced - The researchers refer to this as the ‘paradox of diversity’.

Today, the challenges are greater and more complex. At the national level, diversity is greater and cultural distances larger—offering greater potential for innovation, but also greater challenges.

In the corporate world, approaches such as zero-sum competition - where employees are ranked on performance, and those at the bottom of the ranking are fired can lead to destructive competition, unethical patterns of behaviour, and a reduction in collaborative efforts as people become unwilling to share knowledge. The researchers also show how intolerance of diversity can lead to polarisation and how the nature of diversity affects entrepreneurship.

To tackle this paradox of diversity, the authors offer a new cultural evolutionary framework – ‘cultural evolvability’.  Cultural evolvability is the balance of having enough cultural diversity to be able to adapt to changed circumstances and stay flexible while also working efficiently in the current circumstances.

As part of the framework, the authors highlight several key ways to improve co-ordination between groups. These include finding common goals and sources of information; improving communication and translation opportunities; supporting equal access to education; encouraging collaborative working; and managing resource availability.

Commenting on the new paper, co-author Dr Michael Muthukrishna from LSE said: “We live in an increasingly interconnected and multicultural world. Migration has been a constant feature of the human story, but since the late 19th century’s Age of Mass Migration, more people from more culturally distant societies increasingly live side by side.

“On a local scale, organisations are now forced to navigate the benefits and challenges of diversity. And at a global level, their culturally distant countries of origin are forced to coordinate on global issues as never before. Resolving the paradox of diversity remains one of the great challenges of our time.”

Co-author Robbin Schimmelpfennig, from the University of Lausanne, added: “Unlocking the potential of different ideas, behaviours, values, and skills is key to solving the future challenges of humanity. Diversity has far more potential to drive innovation than incremental improvement or serendipity.” But there are also challenges.

“Without more tolerance for diversity, our societies will get increasingly polarised. But more diversity also means more inequality in outcomes. For organisations and countries, it is thus not sufficient to only strengthen the positive aspects of diversity, like increasing the tolerance of diversity to drive innovation. They also need to tackle the challenges, for example by the redistribution of resources and avoiding zero-sum competition between different groups.”

The paper can be accessed here.