Termites and Skyscrapers

What do termites and skyscrapers have in common?

That’s the way the keynote speaker at last week’s Diversity Alliance for Science conference started his address. Frans Johansson of the Medici Group soon had everyone laughing—and listening.

Diversity has become a corporate buzzword, and supplier diversity officers range from committed champions of minority businesses to people who simply hold the title. All of them will say that supporting diverse businesses is both the right thing to do and a good business decision.

As a small-business owner, I know that doing the right thing must always also benefit the bottom line, but until last week, it always seemed to me that supplier diversity felt a bit like charity. Mr. Johansson put that feeling to rest.

His 2004 book, The Medici Effect, discusses the creative diversity that lies at the crossroads of cultures, economic groups, races, languages, educational levels, genders—all the groups we find in society. He posited that ideas grow out of diversity. The more diverse the group, the more ideas are generated. And that’s what benefits businesses’ bottom line: new ideas generate revenue.

The audience was riveted as we saw formulas calculating the increase in ideas generated when people with different backgrounds and experiences work together without restraint.

Then the speaker displayed pairs of objects with nothing in common, showing how threads from each could be twisted together into new ideas: spider webs and goat’s milk, seashells and military equipment, monkeys and mind readers. And we learned how an architect used the cooling mechanism found in termite mounds to design a South African skyscraper built without air conditioning!

Mr. Johansson called exposing ourselves to new influences “stepping into the intersection.” Whether diversity arises from heritage, social grouping, biological differences, languages, or career fields, whether the person comes from the Pacific Islands or collects buttons (or both), there are ideas waiting for us in those intersections. The Medici Effect is available online here. I highly recommend it.

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