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Diversity Drives Innovation – Keynote Address by Frans Johannson at the 2016 ASCE National Convention

19 Jan 2017 10:29 AM | ASCE Blog Editor (Administrator)

By Pat Sullivan, P.E.

During my time at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) National Convention in Portland, OR, I was able to attend the keynote address by Frans Johansson, international author of the best-selling books “The Medici Effect” and “The Click Point.”  Mr. Johansson, a Brown University graduate (BSCE in Environmental Science), popularized the term “Medici Effect.” “The Medici Effect is the result of the phenomenon that happened in Florence, Italy when diverse concepts, cultures, and disciplines intersected, leading to one of Europe's most creative eras, the Renaissance. This ‘intersection’ is where groundbreaking innovation happens.”

Mr. Johansson, is the founder of The Medici Group, a firm that specializes in mentoring and advising corporations on “how to innovate and grow, even when the rules are changing; develop next-generation leaders that can execute, even in the face of uncertainty; and create a self-sustaining culture of innovation that can withstand even the most volatile markets”.

At the National Convention, Mr. Johansson’s topic was “Diversity Drives Innovation”.  Mr. Johansson states that diverse teams develop and create exponentially more ideas than teams comprised of personnel with the same experience, background and thought process.

A few examples of diverse thinking and innovation are as follows:


Photos courtesy of pinterest.com An architect was tasked to design a seven-story apartment building in Zimbabwe.  The temperatures in Zimbabwe can exceed 100 degrees F in summer months, so the building needed to be air-conditioned.  But the cost of providing this service would make the apartments unaffordable.  While walking through the proposed area, the architect spotted an anthill. He thought, “How can ants survive with the sun beating on the surface of their home.”  After some research, he discovered that ants use a series of tunnels to cool air from outside, distribute the air throughout the anthill, and discharge warm air from the top.  The architect then developed a design that utilized the same process, thereby eliminating the need for air conditioning to provide moderate temperatures in the apartment.


In order for a specialized surgical team in the United Kingdom to properly and efficiently perform an operation, each member of the team has a specific purpose and must be able to move accordingly within the operating area to complete their responsibility.  The surgical team met with members of a McLaren Formula 1 pit team.  There are similarities in the two methods of organization.  The pit crew knows where and when they need to be at a specific location during a pit stop.  The surgical team studied the movements and their practices, and became more efficient in their profession.

A woman of Muslim heritage moved to a beach side town in Australia, where the population is traditionally non-Muslim.  She wanted to swim, but could not wear a conventional swimsuit because of her religious beliefs. She invented a burqini, a full body swimsuit with a hood for covering her hair and of a color matching Islamic beliefs.


Photos courtesy of icehotel.seAn entrepreneur named Yngve Bergqvist wanted to popularize the winter season for tourists in his hometown of Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, north of the Arctic Circle.  He created a series of outdoor ice exhibits, and then added additional exhibits from artists across the world to create a snow gallery.  He staged his snow gallery in an igloo.  When someone new to Sweden asked if they could spend the night in the igloo, something Yngve did not think would be desirable, he created the Icehotel, a CO2 negative building, where you can sleep in a room hewn from ice at a temperature of 20 degrees F.  It is one of the most popular destinations in Sweden.

These examples urge you to look for and come up with ideas that change the game.  Be flexible, rethink standard practices, and ask “Why do we do it this way?” Buy a magazine that you would never buy or subscribe to, preferably that is outside of your expertise and look at the ideas that they have in their field. Ask yourself the question, “Can any of those ideas be applicable to the field of Civil Engineering?”

More ideas are a significant predictor of innovative success.  So pay attention to surprise and the unexpected.  It may lead to amazing innovation.

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