Why Outside Perspectives Are Critical for Innovation Breakthroughs

subscription icon

Innovation is widely seen as a driver of progress – not only to stimulate economic growth, but also to achieve vital improvements in a variety of fields, from science and medicine to inequality and sustainability.

Anyone can have a good idea, so you can expect that the distribution of patents in the US will resemble the demographics of the workplace. Of course, this is far from the case. Numerous studies have shown that two groups lag far behind in terms of innovation leadership: women and African Americans.

This imbalance is often attributed to their under-representation in science, engineering, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. But the data also shows that women and African Americans in STEM areas are much less likely to apply for patents than white men.

If we have been taught anything for the last two years, it is because we urgently need innovative solutions to our most pressing problems, from pandemics, climate change and vulnerable power grids to systemic racism and the spread of misinformation and hatred through Big Tech platforms. We need better innovative minds to work on these issues, but significant barriers prevent underrepresented groups from implementing their groundbreaking ideas. Interestingly, it is often easier for such “outsiders” to engage in combinatorial thinking, which is crucial for developing new solutions.

Studies show that it is often easier for outsiders to associate different opinions because they come to the table with fewer biased opinions than insiders. In one study, for example, individual groups of carpenters, roofers, and skiers were asked for ideas on how to improve the design of respirators for carpenters, seat belts, and knee pads for skaters. An independent evaluation of the solutions showed that each group was much better at creating new solutions for the fields outside their own.

A larger study of 166 problem-solving competitions published on the InnoCentive innovation platform found that the winners were most likely from “unexpected participants” whose areas of expertise were alien to the main area of ​​research. Confirming this advantage of marginality, a separate crowdsourcing study found that industry outsiders are more likely than insiders to come up with breakthrough solutions to complex and difficult R&D problems.

The story of Dr. Patricia Bath, a pioneering ophthalmologist and inventor of modern cataract surgery, provides a vivid example of how outsiders possess key skills to develop innovative solutions – and the formidable obstacles they face in trying to implement their much-needed innovations. society.

This year, 35 years ago, Bath filed a patent for a laser technique to treat cataracts, and two years later, at the age of 44, she became the first African-American woman to receive a medical patent. Bata’s invention was a breakthrough in the fight against preventable blindness, which helped improve or restore vision to millions of people around the world.

But her path was tortuous, filled with gender and racial barriers that would make most innovators give up.

In 1969, when a young black woman found herself in a reserve for white men, Bath was confronted with gender, racial and age biases that affected her credibility and thus her ability to advance in her chosen field. But she took advantage of one of the key benefits her demographic differences and fresh perspective give: the ability to see issues that others have missed. Continuing a medical internship at Harlem Hospital and a scholarship in ophthalmology at Columbia University, she quickly noticed a disparity: about half of the patients at the eye clinic in Harlem were blind or visually impaired, compared to very few patients at Columbia.

Bath found that the prevalence of blindness among African Americans was twice as high as among white Americans. And by reviewing patients ’medical records at both clinics, she realized that it was not a genetic oddity, but the result of poor access to proper eye care, heralding ongoing discussions of health inequalities in marginalized communities during COVID-19. pandemic.

Bath persuaded her professors in Colombia to operate on blind patients for free in Harlem, where she received a rapid course in corneal and cataract surgery as a volunteer assistant surgeon.

Four years later, when she became the first woman to teach at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, she was forced to prove herself again. Only after refusing the offer of an office in the basement next to the laboratory animals was she able to find a more acceptable place to do her job.

For many women and minorities, the cumulative effects of such micro-aggression affect their self-esteem and organizational commitment. Studies have also shown that they interfere with cognitive activity. These implications are bound to destroy participation in innovations that require concentration, self-belief, and a willingness to challenge orthodoxy.

At UCLA, Bath became interested in health imbalances and enlisted the help of two African-Americans from outside her discipline to create the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which upholds vision as a fundamental human right. The nonprofit has initiated a new discipline known as community ophthalmology that has changed the course of medicine and is now practiced worldwide.

Although deviations from the demographic norm can provide a creative advantage in terms of identifying problems and developing alternative solutions, if you are not part of an internal group, it is much harder to develop the resources and support needed to promote ideas through the system. Many people give up.

Bath faced this barrier when she came up with the radical idea of ​​dissolving cataracts with lasers – a technology primarily related to defense systems and dazzling laser weapons at the time. She believed her approach could be less invasive and faster than existing treatments.

The UCLA ecosystem did not support its work. Colleagues were not encouraged there. “When I talked to people about it,” she recalled, “they said it couldn’t be done.” Bath conducted initial experiments in her lab, but UCLA did not have the necessary lasers, and she was unable to receive grants to conduct her research in the United States, so she reached out to her connections abroad – relationships she built through the conference chain – and them until they agreed to give access to their laboratories ”. In 1986, she took a working holiday and moved to Europe for a year to conduct tests in modern laser facilities in Berlin, Paris and the UK.

A few months after returning to UCLA, she completed the creation of her sophisticated three-in-one device – a tiny probe consisting of an optical laser fiber surrounded by irrigation and suction tubes – and conducted her first tests on donor eyes.

After perfecting the technique, Bath went to the director of the lab to share her scientific breakthrough. His answer said a lot: “You didn’t do it,” he told her. “It’s impossible.” He did not look her in the face.

His distrust betrayed his low expectations. Decades of research have established the negative impact of low expectations on performance – known as the Golem effect – including innovation. At this stage of her career, Bath has been resilient enough to keep her “eyes focused on the prize,” but for novice innovators, such manifestations or manifestations of skepticism can be just as detrimental to their motivation as overt discrimination. It can crush a person’s confidence and determination.

The laser laser probe Bath, as she called it, could be inserted through a 1-mm incision. This ensured cheaper, more accurate and reliable cataract treatment with reduced pain and faster recovery of patients. In the following years she improved the device and the method of its use several times, as a result of which she received five patents in the USA, the last of which was issued in 2003 for a combination of a laser and an ultrasound device for cataracts. Her technique is still used all over the world.

In one of her last public appearances, before her death in May 2019, Bath testified before the U.S. Senate Judicial Subcommittee on the hidden obstacles faced by women inventors that deprive the U.S. of more innovation, saying, “Based on my personal experience, the flaws, humiliation and disrespect for the scientific contribution of women scientists and inventors demonstrated in the 1960s continue today. ”

Among the 610 winners in the National Hall of Fame, only 48 women and only 30 African Americans. Until last year, there was not a single black conscript. This year, Bath will be the first (after the nomination for 11 years in a row) together with engineer Marian Kroc. Both are due to be introduced in the 2022 class on May 5th.

Bath is distinguished not only by its inventions and achievements in medical practice, but also by its incredible perseverance and ability to overcome barriers that could break it down in a few moments of its innovative path. How many important innovations do the U.S. miss because of biases and systems that make it extremely difficult for those on the margins to implement their breakthrough ideas?

There are lessons in this story for all of us. Outsiders such as Bath are able to see the world with new eyes and can offer ideas and solutions that challenge our ordinary thinking. We need to pay attention to these prospects. However, our inherent biases, low expectations and skepticism often hinder. Therefore, as a first step we need to recognize our own biases so that we can keep them under control and strive to enrich our thinking.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a great opportunity to do so. The great shifts in work culture, social systems, and well-being have spawned a hotbed of new ideas, many of which come from unconventional sources. We would do well to listen to them.

Leave a Comment