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Dr. David  C. Thomas (Dr. David  C. Thomas)
Dr. David  C. Thomas (Dr. David  C. Thomas)


What can cities do to encourage diversity? Add to ...

Increasingly, demographic diversity is proving crucial to local economic success.

Dr. David C. Thomas, Director of the Centre for Global Workforce Strategy at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Vancouver, says that in the past corporations viewed diversity as a problem to be managed.

“Now, they recognize it as a significant advantage,” Dr. Thomas says. “Now, whether it’s a company or a city, the way to achieve economic benefit is through innovation.”

Diversity influences innovation in distinct ways. “We know for a fact that by bringing people together who have different backgrounds, values, attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions to try and solve problems, we get more and different ideas, more and better ideas, because people don’t all think the same way.”

In addition, being surrounded by differences, he says, has a profound psychological effect.

“When we’re working with people are different than us, it makes us focus on the process involved in making decisions and achieving things. Most of the time, our behaviour is semi automatic, almost scripted; we’re presented with a situation and we behave in a certain way. When we interact with people who are not like us, we shift our focus to the how. We become more thoughtful."

So just how important is diversity? And how can Canadian cities capitalise on this and encourage it? Dr. Thomas joined us for a live online discussion.


Niamh O'Doherty - Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to our live chat. Please feel free to send in your questions now.


Niamh O'Doherty - Everyone, please welcome Dr. David C. Thomas, Director of the Centre for Global Workforce Strategy at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Vancouver.


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Hi Niamh, I'm standing by for questions.


Niamh O'Doherty - Dave, maybe you could start us off by explaining a little why diversity is so important for a city's growth?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Well, economic progress in an era where competition is based on knowledge requires innovation. And, it is pretty clear that diversity can help foster innovation.


Niamh O'Doherty - In what way?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

First, different people bring different ideas. Second, working in a diverse environment causes all of us to think about process. About how we do things. And, finally working with people who have different values to us makes on consider different options. We become more complex in our thinking. This helps us be more creative.


Niamh O'Doherty - Can you give us any examples of this Dave?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Sure! People who have had lots of overseas experience. That is, have interacted in a substantial way with people who are culturally different perform better on common experimental tasks that are indicative of creativity. And, direct measure show they are more cognitively complex. (Think about more and different options)


Niamh O'Doherty - And onto our first question from Matt...


[Comment From Matt]

The focus seems to be on 'economic' innovation; what about social innovation? What impact does diversity have on social innovation and how can/should cities encourage this?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Obviously, as cities become more diverse the society changes. In order to take advantage of what diversity brings society has to allow different ideas and modes of behavior. That is, it has to welcome diversity. Of course this change takes place and probably should take place relatively slowly.


[Comment From Tam]

What do you see as the primary hinderance to cities truly welcoming diversity? How can it be overcome?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Cities only have so many tools at their disposal. My view is that they have to work with business and industry to accomplish their goals. The draw for people to come to a place is usually economic. But the environment can help that or hinder it.


[Comment From Jim ]

Do you think Canadians would be more open to diversity if our government did more to encourage new immigrants to settle in places like PEI, where immigrants are badly needed, instead of our already clogged cities like Toronto?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

I think this is a great idea. People are attracted to the big centres because of economic opportunities. Also, there is follow on migration, where extended family members migrate. So, once you get some momentum there will be a trend as we see in Toronto and Vancouver.


[Comment From Matt ]

Would you agree that drawing attention to attracting and retaining immigrants is a promising way for smaller cities to encourage innovation?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Sure, I agree with the logic. Not as simple a causal chain as that, but in general, I agree. What has to happen is that those people with different ideas, values, skills etc have to be able to engage in society once they get there.


[Comment From Guest]

Why is demographic diversity proving to be crucial to local economic success and how is it measured?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

I think my answer to this is the same one as before. Economic success today depends in large part on innovation. And, we have a building body of knowledge that suggests that diversity is linked to innovation. I'm not a politician so I won't enter the debate about what is economic success. Some would say job creation, others would say output per capita, and others would say new business start ups, etc.


[Comment From Guest]

As you said, “We know for a fact that by bringing people together ... we get more and different ideas, more and better ideas...”. Wouldn't some of the ideas be worse?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Sure, but if you have ever participated in a brain storming or similar idea generation session you know that sometimes a crazy off the wall idea leads someone else to come up with a brilliant solution.


Niamh O'Doherty - Well put Dave! Any opinion on how best to encourage diverse people to connect with each other in meaningful ways in cities? Is it down to employers themselves, or can the city do something about it?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

I think employers are key. My view is that cities should work with employers to create the type of environment they want. There are lots of things they can do, ranging from providing incentive to simply recognizing and publicizing outstanding employers. Here at SFU we give the Nancy McKinstry Diversity award to the employer with the best record on diversity each year.


[Comment From Matt ]

Your suggestion that, "in the past corporations viewed diversity as a problem to be managed...Now, they recognize it as a significant advantage" suggests corporations are only now taking into account the symbolic and legal parameters of Canada (Charter of Rights; Multiculturalism Act). Are corporations late adapters consciously or unconsciously?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

For profit organizations are economically driven. Legislation motivates them to comply. But, they really get excited when they see that diversity can have a positive impact on the bottom line. That's what has been happening recently.


Niamh O'Doherty - How recently Dave? And is this strictly a North American phenomenon, or is it being seen in other areas too?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

I've been studying diversity in organizations for almost 30 years. When I started, nobody was interested in my work. In the last 10 years there has been a dramatic rise in interest. First, because of demographic changes in the workforce and the because of the recognition of the benefits of diversity mentioned previously. This is most prevalent in the developed world that has benefited from in migration.


Niamh O'Doherty - Thanks so much Dave, any final words from you before we wrap this up?


[Comment From Dave Thomas]

Thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts.


Niamh O'Doherty - Thanks to you, and to our readers. Apologies to all the comments we didn't get to, there was a lot of you here today! Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments. Looks like there's a lot to talk about!

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