Diversity drives UK Innovation

Is diversity Britain’s core characteristic?

Andrew Marr claimed on Britain from Above on Sunday that for it’s size, Britain is the most geographically diverse country in the world. Also, London is now famous for being the most diverse city in the world having more than 300 languages spoken by significant populations, whereas New York comes a long way behind with a mere (!) 200.
In what other ways is the UK particularly diverse (or not)?

One of our primary hypothesis at Nesta Connect is that diversity drives innovation. In other words, the more perspectives there are looking at a difficult problem, the easier it is to solve.

If that’s true, is there an opportunity to better harness that diversity to make the UK a more innovative country?


  1. Perhaps this has evolved as a consequence of Britain historially being a place where people moved and travelled. After the Romans, the Celts, the Normans, the shipping industry London was probably a relatively diverse place back in the 17th century or so when a lot of the great institutions started forming. So it built its empire and became a centre whose ideas and language spread across the world.
    As a consequence of that, we probably still attract people who want to be in Britain (London in particular) who will be the pioneers, the troublemakers etc.
    In other words, I don’t think diversity in itself is a reason for a culture of innovation (how many people who speak the different languages are actually segregated from one another?) but I do think Britain has been lucky enough to contain many adventurous people for many centuries.
    Hopefully this will continue to be the case but just as a final thought which I think it important when talking about people from diverse backgrounds – what is the impact of economic opportunity on innovation? How many people can afford the time to experiment or take risks or even the time to break out of low-paid or non-creative occupations?

  2. Hi Roland
    I would agree in principle that diversity of viewpoints (not necessarily related to diversity of languages spoken or ethnicities as you imply) is a driver if innovation. This has long been one of the foundations of the design consultancy IDEO’s success.
    But it does raise the practical question of just how many diverse viewpoints do you need to drive effective innovation?
    It reminds me of old research by Hauser & Clausing on focus groups and product ideas (I think) that showed that it only required a relatively small number of focus groups to identify the vast majority of ideas.
    Diversity is great, but too much of it is just a noisy distraction.
    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  3. Roland,
    Canada has been described as a cultural mosaic for its defined cultural groups yet despite such diversity it lags behind many other countries for innovation. There seems to be a perpetual need to see innovation validated elsewhere. That’s our problem but the UK seems to have a different and better situation.
    Perhaps there are three factors at play in the UK. First, the number of diverse cultures, and languages, and the interplay between them can act as catalysts for innovation whereby the mere fact that disparate cultures are bumping into one another like electrons you get a new type of reaction.
    Second, in comparison to Canada, Britain has nearly twice as many people in a considerably smaller area. That density of cultures can have a bit of a muliplier effect as new ideas are developed, augmented and tested. It can also facilitate rapid transmissions of ideas and the spread of innovation.
    Finally, the level of diversity is also an indicator of tolerance. If a society is more accepting then that should feed innovation because people will be less affraid of failure or retribution for different ideas than in other societies.
    Some questions remain. How do you leverage such a situation with Nesta Connect? Should you act as observers, facilitators or both?
    Regardless of the answers, you are already starting with several innovation advantages over other countries.
    Good luck and much success!
    Andrew Jenkins
    Volterra Consulting

  4. Roland, I’d agree with Graham Hill regarding the diversity of viewpoint being more important than language diversity per se.
    Different cultures approach things in different ways – and each culture has its own history of ideas and developments within that framework, I believe, having worked in many different countries all my life.
    Further, such diversity is a good thing. Indeed some companies make that a part of their corporate culture – Nokia comes to mind is one example, Google is another.
    Peter Feltham, CTO,
    Work Empowerment Foundation

  5. thanks for the considered responses. More considered than my original post in fact 🙂 !
    But yes, Clare, innovation/collaboration can often be seen as a luxury but I think that needs to shift if we are to successfully make the transition to a networked information age.
    Andrew – thanks for the view from Canada. There seems to be a lot going on in Toronto at the moment in particular which is interesting. But your classification of number, density and tolerance is very useful.
    Graham/Peter – again I totally agree that more ain’t necessarily better. Scott Page is excellent on this topic. But I guess most organisations/systems would benefit from engineering in more space for interaction.

  6. America has taken two giant steps towards greater diversity through the Democratic nomination of Obama and McCain’s choice of Palin as a running-mate. When Thatcher stepped into No. 10 Downing Street it empowered a generation of women to make the step into the world of work. Since 1979, the number of female executives in the UK has risen by 180%. What will the American election mean to tomorrow’s world and work? Will it make it a more open, collaborative and innovative place?
    I’d love to know some of your thoughts at the FreshMinds Talent Blog: http://blogs.freshminds.co.uk/talent/?p=385
    Thanks for an interesting debate Roland and all,

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