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Medici Effect author Johansson brings insights to Kellogg diversity initiative

Lecture part of interdisciplinary series sponsored by new Northwestern University research center

By Adrienne Murrill

5/19/2008 - If innovation was a car, diversity would be in the driver’s seat, suggested author Frans Johansson.

“Diversity drives innovation,” Johansson stated emphatically during a May 15 visit to Northwestern University.

An entrepreneur, consultant and author of The Medici Effect, a best-selling text that examines the intersection of ideas and culture, Johansson spoke to students, faculty and members of the public in the Tribune Auditorium at the James L. Allen Center. He was the third guest in a speaker series sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center on the Science of Diversity, a collaboration between the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Johansson discussed the importance of diversity in a competitive global marketplace, where to find diverse perspectives and ideas and how these can increase innovation. Johansson himself serves as a model for how culture and ideas can intermingle: The son of a Swedish father and an African-American and Cherokee mother, he has been fascinated throughout his career by such intersections. “I had seen that whenever I had combined ideas from different cultures, industries and my life, I had a better chance of coming up with something groundbreaking,” he said. “I was wondering, ‘Is that a generalized truth?’”

Through his research, Johansson found this hypothesis to be correct. During his discussion, he presented several examples of how entrepreneurs have combined the unexpected to create remarkable products and technologies. One such case is the “Burqini,” Johansson said, a hybrid of the burqa and the bikini that was designed with Islamic women in mind. Their faith typically requires them to observe hijab, or covering of the head and body, which can make outdoor activities and athletics cumbersome. With coverage comparable to a burqa, the Burqini is made of water-repellant UV-protected material that is sport-friendly. Its development offers a real-world instance of how the combination of near-opposites can benefit consumers in today’s market, according to Johansson.

“Corporations everywhere are desperate for innovation,” he said. “When you go out to work for a company, you’re going to hear (that word) over and over again all over the world.” That’s because the business world is changing at such a rapid pace, he added.

The important connection between innovation and diversity is the framework behind Johansson’s book. Its title references the Medici family, which is credited among other wealthy families for the birth of the Italian Renaissance. This family’s most significant accomplishment was its sponsorship of great artists, such as DaVinci, architects like Brunelleschi and the scientist Galileo. Over the centuries and still true today, “all new ideas are a combination of existing ideas,” Johansson said.

The next expert lecturer in the ICSD speaker series will be Joan Williams, professor of law at the University of California’s Hastings College. On June 2 she will discuss the sociological, psychological and legal aspects affecting professional women.