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This website was created by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), part of the OECD Public Governance Directorate (GOV).

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Diversity in innovation: does it matter?

Diversity in innovation, what does that mean? Why am I thinking about it? Last year, I worked on a conference innovation in social policy, with a particular focus on how public sector innovation could fit into all facets of social policies. It was an  amazing opportunity where I could delve deeper into an understanding of ‘innovation’ and interact directly with innovators charged with making a difference.

At first, the conference felt like a breath of fresh air. Change in government seemed imminent. Even though I was drawn to the public sector because I wanted to improve people’s lives, I  sometimes secretly wondered if  my future would just be grey days in a cubicle, working on some unimportant document, awaiting my pension…

Although I worried about that possible future, the world of innovation promised an out. My first glimpse of it through the conference showed me a ‘public sector Narnia’: one step through an open door would take me a magical land where people were fearless but strategic risk-takers, change-makers, and disrupters. And, they were actually praised for being so.

So, it was decided.

I was going to be an innovator!

My journey in diversity in innovation

My first step in this journey had me think about the current problems my team was working on. Working in a team that was mostly made of males and middle-aged people, I knew that I could capitalise on some of my diversity, being a young, freshly graduated, indo-Canadian female, to help me shape a solution that not only my team had perhaps not thought about.

At the time, we were looking at ways to heighten user-centricity on our communication platform to draw more young people to innovation. We wanted to develop a social media campaign that could help achieve this goal. I felt like this was a perfect opportunity for me, as I had previous experience working in social media and I was also a young professional (precisely the kind of person they were trying to attract). Therefore, after a few days of thinking and running some ideas by colleagues, I finally felt like I was ready to voice my opinion at the next meeting.

The 2pm team meeting came around and I was ready to offer my perspective. When it came to my time to speak, I made my point with confidence, using my experience to illustrate what I meant. The idea I proposed came from a personal reflection, it came from a thought process that took into consideration my various backgrounds, from being a female, to a young graduate, to even looking at the problem from my background of being an ethnically-diverse person.

It was met with blank stares and confusion.

I knew my point wasn’t weird. It was relevant. Yet, it was easily dismissed. I knew deep-down this feeling was not right. I also knew that perhaps I was not the first person to have these feelings either.  I wanted to understand why different opinions, from people who might seem ‘different’, were so readily dismissed.

So, I started to think about what I may have said that may have seemed so strange. But, I started to slowly realise that perhaps this was the paradox of the current ways teams are ‘doing’ innovation. Even though innovation aims to change and question the status quo, the people undertaking are not always willing to turn that critical eye on themselves. Even as progressive and transformative innovation seemed to be on the outside, innovation teams or the people who got to be recognised as innovators looked a lot like those who had always had power and influence…

Diversity in innovation: old problem, new arena?

Can innovation achieve its ends of progression and transformative change if it continues to be dogged by the conventional problems of dealing with equality and equity as any other domain?

I’m probably not the first person to offer a viewpoint, from personal experience, in a meeting and have it fall on deaf ears. Or the first to look at the lauded ‘change makers’ making waves in the field and see that they don’t look like me. Or the first to organise or attend a conference where the voice on the lectern microphone doesn’t sound like mine.

Representation and participation matters.

If we care about innovation being about true change, from the inside out, then we need to start asking questions about this.

Join OPSI’s diversity in innovation group

I see the point of increasing diversity within innovation as a form of innovative practice in itself. Diversity is a complex term with differing and different interpretations. For me, diversity is not only about increasing the representation of people but it is also about ensuring that people with different backgrounds are given the same amount of time, opportunities, and equity when working towards a common goal.  Public sector innovation is not an empty buzzword or abstract concept. At its most elemental, it is a practice; a way of seeing things and a way of working. Like with any human activity, it has social dimensions. Their influence on the way we ‘do’ innovation and, significantly, who gets to be recognised as an ‘innovator’, has consequences on innovation’s impact and import. I intend for my research to enrich our understanding of this social element of public sector innovation.

As part of my summer internship project at OPSI, I want to delve deeper into this broad topic, by looking at its gender element.

Specifically, I am conducting research on how governments can better support women who want to enter the world of innovation. I am interested in investigating:

  • How governments encourage diversity in pubic sector innovation projects
  • the possible significance/ influence of diversity on innovation practice or outcomes

The research is in its planning phase and I’d like your input. Do you have an experience or thoughts to share?

I am looking for interview subjects who would be willing to discuss (on the phone or via email):

  • What links do you see between diversity, particularly gender, and innovation
  • Any personal or professional experience on this topic
  • Any case studies or projects where government are currently undertaking to help drive women within innovation

If you are willing to have a conversation with me, to inform the preliminary scoping of this research project, please

  1. Sign up to OPSI’s community platform
  2. Once signed up, join the public ‘Diversity in Innovation’ group on the OPSI community platform
  3. Post in the group that you are willing to participate in an informal interview when would be convenient to chat with me

If innovation is really this magical land that I once thought it was, then I believe we need lots of different people with different backgrounds to help open that magical wardrobe door. Let’s start the conversation to help lead the way!