It Is Diversity of Experience That Counts

Isaac Asimov, the celebrated science fiction writer, once wrote an essay about creativity [1]. The truly creative mind, he wrote, is one that makes new connections between previously separated concepts. This new connection can only come from the mind of an isolated individual; a new conceptual connection is never made by a committee. Making this cross-connection requires “a certain daring,” and the person who is most likely to think of new ideas is “a person of good background who is unconventional in his habits.” By this, he meant that the creative person should have enough familiarity with the subject matter to be able to discriminate between realistic and unrealistic alternatives (good background) and be able to think outside the conventional box (unconventional in his habits). The presence of other (presumably conventional) people, he wrote, can only inhibit the creative process.

Then, he issued a seeming contradiction: because “one person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.” He then went on to promote the convening of groups of imaginative individuals to share ideas. These meetings to exchange information and outlooks, under certain conditions, can lead to new creative concepts.

Unstated in his essay, yet central to its theme, is that these personal interactions must be ones that can lead to true cross-pollination of domains of expertise, not just factual knowledge but also ways in which these facts can be viewed. Because perspectives are developed from previous experiences, those who attend these meetings must have different histories from which to draw their views. This is where diversity comes in.

The diversity that matters to problem solving is experiential, and diversity of experience leads to diversity of thought. It has been written that Charles Darwin relied on the ideas of the economist Thomas Malthus and his own earlier experiences and explorations with nature when he formulated the concept of natural selection; the 19th-century German cellular pathologist Rudolf Virchow drew parallels between biological development and the development of societies; the celebrated paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould depended on the ideas of hierarchical attributes of dialectical materialism developed by the philosophers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels when he formulated his concepts of developmental evolutionary biology [2]. In each of these examples, thoughts from well outside the areas of expertise of these recognized individuals worked their way into the central cores of their most celebrated accomplishments.

Too often, when diversity in academic programs is discussed, what is mentioned most is the difference in skin color [2], [3]. Oftentimes, skin color and experiential diversity are highly correlated. However, for some of the most selective educational institutions, skin color and experiential backgrounds of student applicants are not related to a large degree [4]. What was found in that study was that University of Maryland applicants, no matter what their skin color, all had strongly supportive families, computer expertise, e-mail addresses, and similar high school records. If skin color had not been known, then there would have been little to distinguish one applicant from another.

When these highly selected students attend classes, they do not bring the desired experiential diversity to enrich class discussions and design project submissions. True diversity of backgrounds can cause design groups to consider ideas different from those that have been tried before. This has happened in my classes when we have had students who represent dissimilar backgrounds.

Studies have shown that diversity promotes hard work, creativity, and consideration of more alternatives than would be the case in a more homogeneous environment [5]. Diverse students expose other students to different viewpoints than they would have otherwise had. There was once a student in one of my classes who, surprisingly to me, had never before had the opportunity to work closely with a person of different skin color. That student confessed to me that working in groups with students of different skin color and cultural backgrounds had opened her eyes to new worlds of ideas. True diversity in the classroom, when accepted without bias, promotes an atmosphere of openness, when anyone can ask any question or contribute any idea, no matter how weird it might seem to those with different experiences [6].

This story is told about Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the greatest and most influential architects of the 20th century: When he was nine years old, he and his uncle walked across a snow-covered field on his uncle’s farm. When they had reached the far side, Frank’s uncle stopped the young boy and pointed to the tracks they had left in the snow. Frank’s meandered all over the place, while his uncle’s went in a straight line from start to finish. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.” Years later, the world-famous architect pointed to the important lesson he learned that day, but it was not the lesson his uncle had intended him to learn. “I determined right then,” said Wright, “not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had.”

The truth is that we need to have both the uncles intent on reaching their goals and the young boys who fully explore their environments. Without the explorers, new and marvelous experiences would not be encountered. But without those with their eyes on the final goal, there would be no closure of accomplishment. Having both types of outlook, with each tolerating the other, is diversity at its best.

My cohort of graduate students included ones nobody else in the department would accept. This was a result of a conscious decision on my part. I wanted the wanderers with their new ideas and different ways to look at things. We already had enough goal-centered grad students to keep all of us on track. Potentially because of the unconventionality of the people in my lab, we became the most prolific and accomplished lab in the department.

George Church has a lab at Harvard University. Rather than seeking homogeneity in his lab personnel, he recruits a very diverse group of assistants and researchers. “The image for me is of poking deep holes all over the place, in the fabric of science and engineering,” he said. “As we probe each of these points, we get cross talk.” The result is one of Harvard’s most productive labs [7]. Other extremely creative and productive individuals also depend on similar means (for instance, the name Bob Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology comes to mind).

In the United States, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a massive project called Big Mechanism to automate research with the development of computer systems to read research papers and develop new hypotheses for subsequent experimental testing [8]. Big Mechanism is meant to deduce new areas of research and to replace the creative process employed by humans to define the directions of research exploration. Whether Big Mechanism will ever incorporate enough diverse experiences to exhibit true creativity I find questionable. Engineering needs diversity of experiences related to problem-solving techniques in their most general sense.

To illustrate that those problems can be solved in some very unconventional means, the story is told of the problem that arose soon after a new skyscraper was opened in New York City. The people who worked in the offices on the upper floors were very unhappy because the capacities of the elevators were not sufficient to carry the surge of people to the ground floor at quitting time. What could be done? There was no way to make the elevators go faster, nor was there the possibility to add elevators at this stage of the building development. The solution was to install mirrors in the halls near where people waited for the elevators. They could then look in the mirrors and check on the appropriateness of their appearances before they left for the evening. With the installation of the mirrors, people on the upper floors didn’t mind waiting to leave. Problem solved! Now, let’s see Big Mechanism come up with a solution like that.

REferences

  1. I. Asimov, “On creativity,” MIT Technol. Rev., vol. 118, no. 1, pp. 12–13, Jan.–Feb. 2015.
  2. W. M. Byrnes, “The forgotten father of epigenetics,” Am. Sci., vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 106–109, Mar.–Apr. 2015.
  3. M. Gaughan and B. Bozeman, “Daring to lead: Bringing full diversity to academic science and engineering,” NAS Issues Sci. Technol., vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 27–31, Winter 2015.
  4. A. T. Johnson and R. Parker, “The effect of technology on diversity, or when is diversity not diversity?” in American Society Engineering Education Annu. Conf. Proc., Washington, D.C., Paper no. 2470-3, 2001.
  5. F. Guterl, “The inclusion equation,” Sci. Am., vol. 311, no. 4, pp. 38–47, Oct. 2014.
  6. S. C. Hill, “In pursuit of the best ideas,” Sci. Am., vol. 311, no. 4, pp. 48–49, Oct. 2014.
  7. J. Interlandi, “The church of church,” Pop. Sci., vol. 286, no. 5, pp. 58–62, May 2015.
  8. J. You, “DARPA sets out to automate research,” Science, vol. 347, no. 6221, pp. 465, Jan. 2015.