An Invitation to Inclusive Innovation

By: Dr. Paola Cecchi Dimeglio, Chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minorities Attorneys at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School

Virtual reality, AI chatbots, and other emerging technologies are fueling a drive to innovate, improve, and patent new products and services that are inclusive from the beginning. This goal is not only morally right but also economically essential; inclusive innovation has become a multibillion-dollar necessity. However, engaging diverse inventors at large technology companies still presents layers of challenges.

In 2022, the USPTO reported a 32% growth in the number of U.S. counties where women patented over the 30-year span from 1990 to 2019; in 2019, over 20% of patents issued included at least one woman inventor; similar data is not available for minority inventors.

Perhaps more than at any time in their history, technology companies are under pressure to achieve patentable breakthroughs. One factor driving the urgency of innovation is the need to create and commercialize products and services that meet the promises of emerging technologies. Once the stuff of sci-fi and fantasy, the Metaverse and humanlike generative AI have taken substantial steps out of movies and literature. Virtual and augmented reality has gone mainstream, and the premier generative AI chatbot, ChatGPT, set user records shortly after it was released late in 2022. Having sampled the Metaverse and prompted chatbots to pour out pages, the public wants more, and they want it now.

Technology giants often partner with smaller, specialized businesses for the purpose of achieving technological breakthroughs. These collaborative ventures may produce new platforms, result in extensive IP development, and spawn multiple families of products. Most often, they fail.

In the current race to innovate, businesses are looking within their ranks for beneficial patentable ideas. It makes sense, as employees at all levels of a company have a close relationship with that organization’s products, patents, and aspirations. Leaders realize that the next big invention can emerge from unexpected quarters at their businesses, and many have begun casting the net as wide as possible.

This time around is different. Innovation has to be highly inclusive at the outset. The environments, cultures, policies, and dynamics of virtual worlds have to operate without traditional biases. And AI has to think and decide without the incidents of discrimination that are dragging many businesses into court. It’s about the bottom line. A Metaverse that is not tuned to highly diverse users cannot achieve its full value potential, estimated at $936.6 billion by 2030. To realize these earnings, inclusion has to be a real part of the innovation process.

Achieving this end at a company means having all perspectives involved in the inventing and patenting processes. Businesses’ all-hands invitations to inclusive innovation have come up against the history of who is more likely to file patents and who is not. Some organizations realize that their own culture has long perpetuated the stereotypes of who is an inventor. Most businesses are running up against the default assumptions that they have cultivated for decades. Some have invested significantly in changing the status quo. Many businesses, including prominent technology companies, have signed a Diversity Pledge and have committed to sharing many of their outcomes.

Other businesses and one significant technology company, in particular, have taken a more scientific approach to increasing the number of underrepresented inventors in their innovation pipeline.

The goal of eliciting innovation from all groups and quarters of the company, truly inclusive innovation, meant getting people from underrepresented groups to see themselves as people who file patents. The process commenced with a baseline assessment of the experiences that employees had with the company’s patent process and related staff. As a result of data analytics and employee interviews, the company reshaped how inventors interact with patent staff and resources. It also launched an internal campaign aimed at redefining who is an inventor.

On a specific level, interviews with minority employees, including those who had filed at least one patent, revealed an unexpected barrier. Part of the language of the invitation to share ideas so that they could be assessed for patentability was offending underrepresented innovators. This language was modified after the initial interviews.

In this case, the use of the term “harvesting” in reference to gathering ideas was being applied to brainstorming sessions. Many individuals across multiple racial, gender, and ethnic identities were offended by the choice of words and the suggested lack of sensitivity. The true number of inventors who hesitated due to past terminology will remain unknown. However, the shift toward inclusive and belonging language is now captivating and involving everyone.

Businesses that are innovating to find and patent the next big thing can examine their own systems of gathering ideas from their people. After hearing from their innovators, they will likely make changes to the systems and staff that help their employees file and prosecute patents on behalf of the organization. Internal education processes and peer-to-peer information sharing bolster engagement.  But even with everything in place and everyone invited to share their ideas, the language of the invitation can create a barrier.

Historically, only certain employees have been invited into the mystery of patenting. The broadly accepted idea has been that patenting is for a limited segment of employees. Now, companies are tasked with dismantling the exclusion and elitism they built. This time, their earnings depend on it.

Three main takeaways:

  1. There is a need for inclusive innovation in emerging technologies both ethically and economically. However, involving diverse inventors in large tech companies presents challenges.
  2. Innovation must be highly inclusive at the outset. To do so, tech companies should have all perspectives involved in the inventing and patenting processes.
  3. The language of the invitation matters. Historically, only certain employees have been invited to become involved in patenting. The language should not only be inclusive and welcoming in itself but should also be directed towards all potential employees. To do so, companies should dismantle the exclusion and elitism they had built.

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