Every October since 1987, Black History Month has been celebrated in the UK, as a way of commemorating and highlighting the struggles, plight and the successes of black people, from both in Africa and throughout the African diaspora.
The celebration of Black History Month could be considered an innovation in itself. The initiative to hold a month in celebration of Black History first emerged in the US, as a direct response to a widespread lack of recognition of African-American contributions to society. Today we celebrate key black figures, as well as entire communities who have worked together to improve the lives of black people. It is also a time that demonstrates that although we have come far, we still have a long way to go in securing equality for black people across the world.
Since the first Black History Month was celebrated, technology has dramatically changed the way we live our everyday lives and increasingly, these technologies are becoming more personal. Alongside this development, it has become more evident that not everybody is represented within the process of designing new technologies, particularly when it comes to black and other ethnic minorities. Examples include, recent stories of fitness trackers that don’t recognise dark skin, facial recognition systems misidentify black people at rates five to ten times higher than white people, and even in public services, ethnicity seems to be a barrier, showing just how pervasive the issue is. Although technology has gotten to the stage being able to cater to and serve users daily, products simultaneously seem untargeted at minority groups.
When issues such as these arise, we are forced to ask ourselves who the gatekeepers of innovation are and what role we as individuals have in making innovation inclusive for everyone.
One of the biggest barriers is from childhood, black children are not encouraged to pursue innovation. Recent evidence from Raj Chetty and John Van Reenen found that white children in the US are three times more likely to become inventors than black children are. This means that from childhood, the chances of black children entering particular industries are stifled. Without even properly beginning their educational journey, their chances are limited, meaning that innovation remains closed and confined. This has huge ramifications at an individual level but it also impacts the business eco-system as a whole, because with less people participating, innovation becomes stagnant. Runnymede’s Aiming Higher identifies issues within higher education in the UK for black students, and makes recommendations on how to increase equality of opportunities. Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation estimated that if under-represented groups’ potential was harnessed, innovation would be quadrupled.
Nesta has conducted its own research in the UK. Opportunity Lost finds that less than 1.5 per cent of the UK’s school population is currently reached by schemes focused on getting children interested in inventing. The same report finds that overall, schools with better-off pupil populations are more likely to take part in schemes that promote invention. It acknowledges that we can’t look at the full picture of how black students perform in innovation, because there is insufficient data and research to come up with a conclusion, and therefore solutions on how to deal with this issue. This is why we recommended that Government should invest in research and data on diversity in innovation and pathways into innovation. We need long-term data and evaluations to track pathways of innovators over time, so that we can better understand the factors that affect whether people become inventors. Tracking this information will also allow us to explore the impact of policies across systems. We need better monitoring data to understand diversity among innovators.
I am a black woman from a working class background. Often my identity is homogenised and split into three separate experiences: being black, being a woman, and being working class. At the moment, data does not reflect these experiences being interlinked. Without specific data, it is unclear how people who are in the same position as myself can be targeted and helped to ensure that innovation becomes more inclusive. Moving forward, we need the UK’s vast research and innovation sector to prioritise collecting nuanced data that represents our culturally rich and diverse population. Only by doing this, will we be able to create targeted interventions that truly work and ultimately see the benefits of having diverse innovators who cater to everyone, not just a few.