By now you’ve probably read the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the Muslim teen who was arrested in the town of Irving, Texas for bringing a homemade clock to his school. That’s right: he had the curiosity, skill, creativity, and ambition to build something and he was rewarded by being marched out of school in handcuffs. Ahmed Mohamed represents everything that is right with America; his arrest represents everything that is wrong.
Here’s the 21st century reality: inclusion strengthens our country, our institutions, and our economy. In our modern technological economy, growth and prosperity are created through a virtuous cycle between innovation and demand. Innovation is the process by which we solve all human problems, and thus raise living standards. Consumer demand is the mechanism through which markets distribute and incentivize innovation. And it is economic inclusion—the full, robust participation of as many people as possible—that drives both innovation and demand.
Innovation is an evolutionary process and, just like in the biological world, diversity is the key to evolution. The more cognitive diversity we have—the more people simultaneously approaching the same problem from as many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible—the greater the rate of innovation. It’s not how hard you try; it’s how many different ways you try to solve a problem that leads to success. Innovation is driven by differences, not sameness.
The evidence is clear: diversity does not hinder growth—it supercharges it. That has always been America’s competitive advantage: we have the most diverse workforce in the world, and for all our problems, we do a better job of integrating diversity than anyone else. Diversity is America’s most valuable resource; it is what makes us the most innovative nation on Earth.
The trouble is that there are places in America that continue to fight to exclude people rather than include them. Put another way: there are places in America that arrest Ahmed for being a curious amateur engineer, rather than applaud him. And towns like Irving that exclude citizens on the basis of race and religion and fear are putting us is in danger of falling into an economic death spiral. Make it clear that people like Ahmed aren’t welcome, and they will flee, taking with them people and companies that value diversity. Left behind will be an increasingly homogenized, narrow, and less competitive population, electing the same kind of leaders who support the same kind of laws that chase even more smart people away, creating a “brain-drain” death spiral that degrades the ability of that place to compete, innovate, and solve problems. If you punish curious people for creating things, they’re not going to stop creating things; they’re going to go create things someplace else: a place that welcomes, rewards, and celebrates the qualities that make them unique.
The good news: America is a big place. There are lots of cities and states here that are fighting to include people rather than exclude them, and those places are kicking the daylights out of exclusionary places. Maybe after Ahmed finishes up his visits to the White House and the Facebook campus, he’ll consider moving to Seattle or San Francisco or New York City or any of the countless places in America that reward inventors and innovators. Our economy needs more people like Ahmed.