Minds Without Borders

    Why ‘thought diversity’ makes tapping into global experience more important than ever

    By Omar Mouallem on May 20, 2015

    Mind without Borders illustration

    Illustrations by David Vogin

    “Welcome to Jurassic Park,” says Nermeen Youssef, mimicking the classic movie line with a sweeping gesture across the lobby of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the University of Alberta. A fantastical science park it is not, but, to the young PhD candidate, these wood-panelled walls decorated with paintings of such Canadian Medical Hall of Famers as virologist Lorne Tyrrell, ’64 BSc, ’68 MD, actually do house magic.

    Before arriving from Cairo in 2009, Youssef knew the Alberta capital not for its hockey team, nor its mega-mall, but for its university. More exactly, she knew it for the Edmonton Protocol, a method of islet cell transplantation and the closest thing yet to a cure for Type 1 diabetes — it was discovered under this very roof. So when picking a place to study the cardiovascular effects of antidiabetic drugs, she zeroed in on the U of A. “I’m very lucky to be here,” she says, before buttoning a white coat over a stylish cardigan. “These are very famous people I’ve only read about in papers — the actual people who did the Edmonton Protocol. They’re pioneers.”

    Youssef, too, is pioneering.

    Her name is on a patent that could replace insulin injections with a safer and easier treatment. The team she belonged to at the U of A’s Alberta Diabetes Institute, before she left to focus on her thesis, is working to engineer a person’s own fat cells to secrete insulin in response to blue light. It could spare some diabetics from ever needing another insulin needle again.

    Research at the U of A looks a lot different than it did 16 years ago when doctors James Shapiro, ’01 PhD, Ellen Toth, Ray Rajotte, ’71 BSc(ElecEng), ’73 MSc, ’75 PhD, and five other scientists made history. Today, the U of A is ranked by Times Higher Education as 87th of the 100 “most international universities” based on diversity on campus and faculty collaboration with international colleagues on research projects. Forty per cent of the U of A’s professorship is from abroad. International student enrolment at Alberta post-secondaries, as a whole, increased by 22 per cent from 2003 to 2012, according to the Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Services Agencies of British Columbia, which promotes diversity.

    In the lab, this international shift is reflected on the whiteboard around the corner, which, every year, fills with New Year’s greetings in Farsi, Chinese, Polish, Slovakian and Arabic.

    The institute has become the United Nations of science labs.

    Led by Peter Light (who was recruited to Canada from Britain) the institute didn’t actively seek to diversify the lab. The groundbreaking innovations of the past have simply made the lab attractive to some of the best researchers in the world. And if that original research team had such a profound impact drawing from the best in Canada, just imagine what this group can do with the best in the world.

    It was in 1983 that Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt coined the term “globalization.” He was referring to the globalization of markets, but in the little more than 30 years since, nearly every facet of life has become borderless. Two decades later, in their 2006 international bestseller Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott, ’78 MEd, ’01 LLD (Honorary), a leading authority on innovation and globalization, along with co-author Anthony D. Williams, put it this way: “We are witnessing the reweaving of the social, political and economic fabric that binds our planet, with long-term consequences that are as, or more, profound than the industrial revolution.”

    Today we use technology designed in one country, manufactured in another and assembled at home. Lunchrooms like Youssef’s are multilingual. Grade 12 students’ Facebook feeds fill with ads from international colleges. Entrepreneurs are just as likely to collaborate with people from five countries as five provinces. And you are probably more likely to get tech support from Pakistan than Winnipeg.

    “Clearly, all business is international business because you’re competing against companies from all over the world,” says Rikia Saddy, ’88 BA, a Vancouver-based author and marketer. “And your team is worldwide.” Saddy collaborates with partners in Europe because doing so can cut project timelines in half. “I can work all day, then hand things off to a graphic designer in Denmark. Then they work all night, and I wake up and it’s done. A three-month project becomes a five-week project.”

    Thought diversity posits that more important than social variances are cognitive ones. Put another way: different perspectives are the true value of inviting diversity to the table. If you do this, the natural byproduct is a diversity of thought. And a natural byproduct of that is innovation and creativity.

    But the collision of perspectives and the mashing of heterogeneous minds goes beyond economic benefits. The true advantage isn’t cost savings, argue Tapscott and Williams, but the possibilities for growth, innovation and diversification.

    As globalism expands, we’re discovering the impact of breaking homogeneity — in classrooms, in offices, in politics — and learning how a variety of backgrounds, experiences and points of view can invigorate collaboration. In other words, we’re unlocking the true value of diversity.

    Ah, diversity. Is there another English language word that has provoked more nervousness in the boardroom? Since the concept of workplace diversity took hold in the 1970s, efforts to hire racial, gender and sexual minorities have become a multibillion-dollar industry, with America collectively spending US$8-to-10 billion a year on diversity training, according to one estimate.

    As the City of Edmonton’s diversity and inclusion consultant, who has trained some 10,000 public servants since 2008, Candy Khan, ’96 BA, ’08 MEd, realizes there is some skepticism about her field. “Diversity in the ’70s would have meant, ‘Let’s just hire people who are visibly different — women, Aboriginal and persons with disabilities — and let’s just put a checkmark beside each,’ ” says Khan, who recently returned to the U of A to complete her PhD on adult education.

    She thinks the subsequent affirmative action plans have failed. Instead of creating meaningful inclusion, they created a numbers game. Today, diversity includes historically disadvantaged groups including the sexual and gender minority community, and her work with the city goes much deeper than “just counting heads,” she says. The goal, not only through hiring but also through policies and public programs, is to recognize and reflect the growing diversity of city residents and remove barriers to civic involvement.

    Khan believes that diversity training is a business imperative. “We’re no longer competing for local labour but for global labour.”

    So when Khan consults with her colleagues, she asks not which visible minority groups are missing, but which personal experiences are absent. “There’s a shift in philosophy,” she says. “Diversity, to me, is really about your experiences. We’re always looking at diversity of ideas, thoughts.”

    Thought diversity, or “informational diversity,” is a relatively new term in Khan’s field. It posits that more important than social variances are cognitive ones. Put another way: different perspectives are the true value of inviting diversity to the table. If you do this, the natural byproduct is a diversity of thought. And the natural byproducts of that, says Khan, are innovation and creativity.

    A number of studies appear to back this notion. In one, professors at Columbia Business School and University of Maryland examined top firms in the Standard & Poor’s Composite 1,500 index. They wanted to see if companies with more women in top management performed differently. They did in firms that focused on innovation. Those companies saw a US$44-million increase in value when there were more senior-level women compared to companies that did not have women in those roles. “Female representation in top management,” it reads, “brings informational and social diversity benefits to the top management team, enriches the behaviours exhibited by managers throughout the firm, and motivates women in middle management.”

    Another team of American researchers, in 2004, wanted to know if racial diversity had any impact on collaboration. White students were assigned either a white or black collaborator (acting as a student) and tasked with discussing, then writing essays about, tough social issues. When a collaborator presented a dissenting opinion, the listening student believed it to be more novel when the speaker was black. Also, students were more willing to consider and include diverse points of view in their essays after being in a group with someone different.

    Mind without Borders illustration

    The best way to understand the value of diversity is to think like a biologist. Imagine all the world’s forests were made up of only poplars. And all the world’s marine life were salmon. And all the world’s fruits, apples. Not only would the world be dreadfully boring, but it would also be vulnerable to mass destruction. All it takes is one phenomenon — a virus or invasive species, for instance — to threaten preservation. A variety of life keeps our ecosystems robust and adaptable — that’s why biodiversity is so important in biology.

    The pine beetle infestation that has devastated interior British Columbia is one example of what can happen when biodiversity breaks down. The most recent crisis came about in the early 2000s, the result of warmer winters (colder weather typically keeps the insects in check) and a decades-long increase in dense, mature pine forests along with a decline in vegetation such as montane grassland. Pine reproduce at a terrific rate and fill ecological voids — until the right beetle comes along and devastates half of the trees in a region in the span of a couple of years. “You can have an epidemic of economic and life loss, simply because you’ve created an excellent place for pests or disease,” explains U of A biology professor Heather Proctor, ’86 BSc(Hons), whose research focuses on the diversity of mites and lice in birds. “There’s not enough variety to avoid susceptibility to that disease.”

    Or take heritage chickens. Proctor has a personal interest in heritage chickens, which are being studied by some of her U of A colleagues. Industrial farming has bred impressively productive poultry that produce a lot of breast meat, and fast. But the animal is also genetically depauperate, the opposite of diverse, meaning a single strain of the wrong virus (or the right one, from the virus’s point of view) could wipe out a flock.

    “Higher biodiversity at the genetic or species level is thought to improve both resistance and resilience,” says Proctor, who sees parallels in the concept of thought diversity. The biology department is an example, she says. The different “subcultures” — a geneticist, ecologist and field biologist, for example — bring different lenses to science. This diversity creates undergraduate students who can see biological systems from many angles. “They’re intellectually flexible,” she says.

    “If you have a workplace with different types of humans and culture, then it’s analogous to having a nice flock of heritage chickens. People will see things in slightly different ways.” It may not be as efficient, but in the long run the workplace becomes more agile and yields better results. “A more diverse business culture will be able to respond more rapidly because there will be more ideas to draw from,” says Proctor. “You can call it your business genome.”

    That’s diversity on the genetic level. What about on the cognitive level? What happens psychologically, neurologically, when we engage with dissimilar people?

    A 2013 study involving Katherine W. Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School, found that when Democrats were told to present an idea to Republicans, participants were far more prepared. Writing for Scientific American, she explains, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”

    That’s not to say that diversity doesn’t also complicate environments. It has been shown to cause discomfort, distrust, interpersonal conflict, miscommunication and less cohesion, according to Phillips. But it does appear to make us better at solving complex problems, even in the scientific community. Poring over 2.5 million academic papers published between 1985 and 2008, researchers from Harvard found that articles by ethnically diverse research groups were cited more often and published in higher-profile journals than homogeneous teams.

    As you begin to express yourself in another language, giving expression to the world around you, you begin to understand the manner in which other people live and think. In other words, by speaking their language, you come to better understand their culture and their perspectives on the world.

    Just ask Andrzej Weber about the benefits of diversity. The U of A anthropology professor and director of the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project leads scholars from seven nations investigating ancient hunter-gatherer culture in two parts of the world: Siberia’s Lake Baikal and the Japanese island of Hokkaido. He began studying the former on his own 25 years ago, but soon realized the potential of multidisciplinary research. “The fact that it was international was really a natural consequence of looking for the best experts out there in academia,” he says. He quickly learned there are also unintended benefits. “People have different perspectives and knowledge about the local context, environmental context, archeological context, that otherwise would be impossible to acquire on your own.”

    That knowledge pool has grown since fieldwork in Japan was added in 2011 — though that has brought some cultural complexities, as well. Whereas Russia’s hierarchical authority tends to make for efficient decision-making, Weber says, the Japanese culturally prefer consensus, meaning they can be averse to definitive negative answers. “They will keep meeting until the last person is on-board.”

    On the other hand, the Japanese have a deep appreciation for archeology matched by few other cultures, so community support has been enormous, pushing Baikal-Hokkaido findings into national news on an almost weekly basis. Weber has come to embrace the cultural frictions. “I like the challenge,” he says. “To face these difficulties you have to invent ways of working around them.”

    The benefits of encountering other cultures and ways of thinking even extend to the brain.

    Over the past four years, Weber has begun living part time on Hokkaido and took an intensive Japanese language course. Learning the language has had an impact on more than just his working relationships. If we could zoom in on his brain, we’d see neurological changes from learning a second language.

    A number of studies point to positive effects from learning to think in a second language. Multilingual people are exceptional multi-taskers. They are better able to weed out irrelevant information. Memory, decision-making, standardized testing — a growing body of evidence shows that all these improve with linguistic diversity.

    For U of A psycholinguist Leo Mos, ’66 BA, ’69 MSc, ’74 PhD, the greatest value in different languages is the advantage of other world views. As you express yourself in another language, giving expression to the world around you, you begin to understand the manner in which other people — this other linguistic group — live and think. In other words, by speaking their language, you better understand their culture and perspectives on the world. “To have globality is to know the discourses of other peoples,” says Mos. “That’s what we lose when we lose diversity of language.”

    The tectonic plates that divide continents have, figuratively, shifted and collided. We find ourselves navigating a new geography in technology, science, business, activism, education and media. In this more integrated world, where migrating talent circulates through the planet’s literal and digital ports, intellectual resources are quickly replacing other “natural resources” as a source of wealth and well-being.

    “The future,” write Tapscott and Williams, “therefore, lies in collaboration across borders, cultures, companies and disciplines. The countries that focus narrowly on ‘national goals’ or turn inward will not succeed in the new era. Likewise, firms that fail to diversify their activities geographically and develop robust global innovation webs will find themselves unable to compete in a global world.

    “Effectively, it’s globalize or die.”

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