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How governments can promote real diversity

As with most of contemporary life, the pandemic has magnified the impacts of unequal access to technologically innovative employment on livelihoods. The COVID-19 digital divide has meant that some people continue to safely work and earn from home, while others are forced to decide whether to endure physical risk in order to get to work, or to stay home, and risk their family’s financial well-being.

As The Economist recently asserted, this is one reason why getting a more diverse representation in innovative activities and places, like Silicon Valley, which are often digitally-enabled, has never been more urgent. The pressure from the pandemic came on top of the earlier awareness that modern technological advance offers both opportunities—for productivity advances, highly-skilled employment—and substantial challenges, as automation that threatens to destroy a large swath of jobs that have been the basis of people’s livelihoods. Technological innovation is connected to massive structural inequalities, by causing job losses for those already vulnerable while endowing founders and investors with even greater wealth.

Inclusive innovation is a phrase used to capture efforts, especially government policies, aimed at improving the participation of broader society in innovation. Inclusive innovation policies strive to alleviate the under-representation of certain demographic groups (identified with reference to gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability status) in innovative activities, such as working in the high-technology sector. Many such strategies focus on increasing the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and as entrepreneurs, for instance. Government policies acknowledge the range of causes of under-representation, including constraints on the supply of labour (insufficient training or desire to participate, which leads to a small set of initial applicants from under-represented groups), as well as demand-side challenges (conscious or subconscious preferences on the part of investors and employers that inhibit sufficient investment in, or employment of, applicants based upon demographic traits).

But how can policy promote inclusive innovation? Many governments have earmarked pots of money according to underrepresented demographic groups. Governments provide money, in the form of research and development spending or start-up loans, for particular groups in an effort to increase their participation in both basic research and entrepreneurial activities in innovative sectors. Other efforts include investment in human capital, in the form of skills training—for example, coding boot-camps, or STEM education. The idea for skills training is that an insufficient set of specialized skills is excluding particular demographic groups from work in innovative sectors. Yet another strategy is to set a quota for participation, as the highly-covered Norwegian boardroom quota has done.

But, there is another tack to drive more inclusive innovation: social capital accumulation strategies. Rather than providing funding or specific skills training, policymakers can run campaigns, networking schemes, and mentorship programmes to help excluded people develop the necessary links they need in order to operate as entrepreneurs or in the technology sector.

Without personal connections, and without indications of the right experiences and networks, under-represented demographic groups may struggle to break into employment in innovative sectors. In turn, their lack of aspiration to, or confidence in the accessibility of, such employment opportunities then prevents would-be investors or employers from effectively evaluating their abilities. Social capital accumulation policies, then, aim to remedy such deficiencies by forging connections among members of the innovation system, and running campaigns to promote more inclusive practices. Some social capital strategies specifically target particular demographic groups, while others aim to change the preferences of the broader innovation and entrepreneurship communities.

Part of the strategy involves building connections within groups, such as Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation programme, which requires women-to-women mentorship. The logic is that the developing close relationships with others in one’s demographic group who have already made it can provide the social boost that is needed to break in. Another part of the strategy involves working to connect people from under-represented demographic groups with contacts across the innovation system. For example, the Inclusive Innovation Initiative, run by the U.S. Minority Business Development Agency, connects minority entrepreneurs with federal laboratories, so they can access new technology. Beyond the social connections within groups, and across wider society, strategies also aim to update norms. Role model campaigns are a popular bonding tools for encouraging empowerment. Bridging strategies can also take the form of campaigns, but are designed to update the norms of wider society in order to address conscious and unconscious bias.

There’s encouraging evidence that these social capital accumulation strategies are working. But, much of the evidence has – thus far – been more anecdotal than systematic. And, perhaps more worryingly, policymakers are not yet listening. We need to do more to empower people and promote inclusive norms across society.

Featured Image Credit: “Photo Of People Near Wooden Table” by fauxels. CCO public domain via Pexels.

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